The Conspirator

The Conspirator
Made in: USA
Language: English
Director: Robert Redford
Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Danny Huston, Colm Meaney, Alexis Bledel, Evan Rachel Wood, Johnny Simmons, Toby Kebbell, Justin Long, Norman Reedus
Year: 2011

Synopsis: After the US Civil War, young Union war hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) returns to Washington DC in hopes of resuming his life as a lawyer. But before he can settle back into civilian life and rekindle his relationship with Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel), a former flame, the unthinkable happens.

President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated by the infamous John Wilkes Booth (played by Toby Kebbell). Booth is hunted down and killed, but his co-conspirators are rounded up.

One of the accused conspirators is Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who owns the boarding house where the conspirators were known to regularly meet. Surratt's son, John (Johnny Simmons), evaded the authorities and has gone into hiding. A devout Catholic and proud Southerner, Mary Surratt maintains her innocence.

Aiken finds himself with the unenviable task of having to defend Mary Surratt, whose role in the conspiracy isn't clear due to her desire to protect her son. Furthermore, Mary is a civilian being tried before a military tribunal, which is unconstitutional.

At the behest of Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), Aiken finds himself up against a prosecution and jury stacked heavily against him.

Not only does Aiken have to defend Surratt, but it also appears that he must also defend the integrity of the US Constitution from an overreaching government bent on revenge rather than justice.

The Good: The Conspirator is very well detailed and compelling. You don't have to be a history buff to be able to follow the story, and the writing is excellent.

The entire cast is great, with very strong performances by James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, and Kevin Kline (as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton).

Overall, the film looks very impressive as a period piece. One of the main themes is about overreaching government power in a time of national crisis, and is a direct commentary about the curtailing of civil liberties in the midst of today's War on Terror. The case is made very clear, and cleverly woven into the story.

The bad: There's more than a bit of whitewashing going on, which might raise a few eyebrows if you have any basic knowledge of US history. First of all, and this has been stated in many other reviews, there's no mention or reference to slavery. And for a film about the US Civil War, that's kind of weird, don't you think?

There are vague references to "Southern honor" and such, but one of the hotly debated topics of the time was the right of one human being to own another as property.

Not mentioning that just sort of sticks out as a glaring omission. Mary Surratt was documented as being a slave owner herself (she owned at least two). And in this film, there's no mention of it at all.

Artistic license also seems to have been taken with the portrayal of Secretary of War Stanton, who's portrayed as being imbued with a dose of Dick Cheney-like villainy. The scenes of him debating with James McAvoy behind closed doors make for great movie moments, but there's no evidence that such conversations ever took place.

Who would like this film: The Conspirator is for you if you're fascinated with the history of the US Civil War, and if you're in the mood for a compelling courtroom drama. Strictly as a film, this is a very strong story with great actors and genuinely emotional moments.

But Robert Redford eschews important bits of historical accuracy (like the whole slavery thing) in favor of making a point about post 9/11 government policy. He makes valid arguments about constitutional rights, but whitewashing history and practically making stuff up might not have been the most effective way to go about doing it.

And in the end, it creates a sense of simplistic naïvety in an otherwise great-looking film.

(3 out of 4 stars for being a good movie)
(2 out of 4 stars for historical accuracy)

Review written by: Joe Yang

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