The Conspirator
Directed by Robert Redford
Starring:  Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Evan Rachel Wood
Rated PG-13 for some
violent content
2 hrs. 3 min.

This is a film about a war, a dead president and a trial. As such, there are two opposing threads that run throughout — the slow, methodical search for evidence and the flaming rage and passion that shook Washington, D.C., in the 1860s.

What’s unique about this film’s perspective is that it focuses on Mary Surratt (Wright), the lone woman accused in the plot to kill President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State John Seward. Her son, John Surratt, is one of the conspirators the army seeks to arrest, but since he can’t be found, the U.S. War Department decides instead to put his mother on trial.

Enter war hero and defense attorney Frederick Aiken (McAvoy), who is asked by one of his senior associates, Sen. Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to serve as Mary Surratt’s defense attorney. Aiken is reluctant to take on the case.

First, as she is John Surratt’s mother and the owner of the boarding house where the conspiracy began, he already believes Mary is guilty of conspiracy. Second, she’s Southern and he’s a Yankee. Aiken has just spent four years as a Union soldier fighting the rebel army. He’s not anxious to defend someone he considers the enemy.

I think director Robert Redford knows the risk he’s taking here. This is a historical film about matters of law.

Translating it to the big screen is arduous and painstaking. So it’s not surprising that, to make its point, Conspirator often feels like a puzzle being conspicuously assembled. Furthermore, given all the story’s legal proceedings, watching this film is a bit like sitting in a jury box.

But give Redford credit. As a seasoned and insightful director, he knows where he’s going, and screenwriter James Solomon provides a strong script to work from. The pace may be slow but there’s an admirable sharpness to the dialogue. The story may be rooted in Civil War politics, but what’s spoken is consistently cutting.

The cast also includes a battalion of great British actors like Tom Wilkinson, Colm Meaney and Danny Huston, plus strong supporting performances by Kevin Kline and Evan Rachel Wood.

But the real spark at the center of Redford’s legal storm is Mary Surratt. Plainspoken, dressed in black, Wright deftly portrays Surratt as a quiet Catholic woman with clear convictions, especially when it comes to protecting her son. She supports the South but her ideals are also rooted in her faith and family. Wright is most effective when she says little and keeps her keen eyes focused on Mr. Aiken. But when she does speak, both Aiken and the audience are dramatically drawn in.

I think it’s worth noting that there’s more to this film than just history. How Aiken comes around to providing a spirited and desperate defense of his client is the main storyline. But what is Redford really getting at here? A 150-year-old story about the Civil War trial of an obscure widow? Yes, but tell me if this story sounds familiar.

Imagine Mary Surratt today arrested as a war criminal and left in the hands of a post-9/11 government. Now imagine her imprisoned at Guantanamo. Put her at the mercy of the military. Strip her of basic civil liberties. See the parallels?

I think Redford would like to seduce us into thinking this is just another Civil War film, but I believe he views this story as a warning. Justice is an imperfect process carried out by imperfect people, but the key to its success is sticking to a reasonable process and trusting the outcome. For all its flaws, Conspirator effectively makes its point.

Look at Washington post-Lincoln. Now look at Washington today and tell me Redford isn’t on to something.