Movie review for “The Conspirator”

Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright Penn, Tom Wilkinson
Directed by: Robert Redford
Rated: PG-13 

            On April 14th, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while attending a play with his wife at Ford’s Theater. The shooter was John Wilkes Booth, but in all of his infamy, he did not act alone. During the weeks following Lincoln’s death, the search was on for the conspirators who aided Booth. Eventually, four persons were named and charged as conspirators: Lewis Paine, George Atzerodt, David Herold, and Mary Surratt. This film is about Mary Surratt and the fight to prove her innocence.

            Frederick Aiken, a young lawyer fresh off the bar exam, is called to represent Surratt in court by his more experienced peer, Reverdy Johnson. Automatically believing that she is guilty, Aiken refuses to defend her. However, Johnson challenges him to prove her guilt and if he does, he can leave the case. Aiken then sets out to discover the truth. He learns that Surratt owned a boarding house where her son John would hold secret meetings with Booth and others. She claims that her son and his companions only planned to kidnap the President in exchange for Confederate POWs. She swears that she did not know of an assassination plan to take Lincoln’s life. Aiken is still skeptical of Surratt, but when he and his client encounter extreme prejudice in the courtroom, he begins to set out on a bigger mission: the triumph of justice.

            “The Conspirator” is an emotionally compelling drama that explores the “other side of the story.” Instead of approaching the argument from the government and Lincoln’s administration’s viewpoint, the film focuses on the accused party and poses the question, “What if?” What if Mary Surratt wasn’t guilty? This movie implores the age-old judicial principal of “beyond reasonable doubt.” Could her guilt be proven 100 percent without any room to question?

            The actor performances in this docudrama are outstanding. James MacAvoy’s headstrong and resilient attorney gives us a motivation to fight for true justice in all circumstances, despite our personal bias or feelings. Robin Wright Penn’s portrayal of the despondent and somber Mary Surratt is heartbreaking. Most of the supporting actors round out the film very nicely. 

            In an interview with Parade Magazine, director Robert Redford said, “I don’t feel that the political films I’ve made have been partisan criticisms of the left or right, but criticisms of the political process itself. I’m not inventing anything—I’m putting a spotlight on it.” In “The Conspirator” a spotlight is shone on the judicial process and the Constitution. It raises big questions about justice and if we, the American people, really care about it. If we do, our actions should prove it.

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One Response to Movie review for “The Conspirator”

  1. Parttimesleuth says:

    Great review! I thought this movie was very thought-provoking, but didn’t necessarily change my mind about Mary Surratt’s guilt/innocence. I read the book “Manhunt” (about John Wilkes Booth) a while back, and in the author’s opinion, Mary Surratt was guilty (beyond a reasonable doubt). I guess that influenced me more than I realized.

    John McAvoy brought believability to the inner conflict he faced regarding justice and his own personal prejudices. I wished the movie had covered more of the assassination and hunt for Booth, but overall, I really enjoyed it!

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