Directed by Robert Redford
Starring James McAvoy and Robin Wright
4 Stars (out of 4)
I'm sure the words "historical drama" don't stir excitement in many people. Let this be the exception. The Conspirator is a smart and gripping account of a grave injustice. As a disclaimer, my knowledge of this subject is lacking. It could be that all of these events have been exaggerated, altered or outright fabricated. I can only say that this film is brilliant from a cinephile's perspective. I do not know if historians will find it as brilliant.
The film is about the events surrounding Abe Lincoln's assassination. Specifically, its about a young lawyer who risks everything. His client is Mary Surrat, the mother of John Surrat who was a known conspirator in Lincoln's murder. She ran a boarding house where her son and John Wilkes Booth held secret meetings to plot against the president. When authorities couldn't locate her son, she was arrested instead.
The Conspirator trailer
Marry Surrat's lawyer, Frederic Aiken (McAvoy), is a true patriot. He was a war hero and a highly regarded captain in the Union army. He was in town the night Lincoln was shot and is appalled when he is first asked to defend a possible conspirator. Senator and former Attorney General Reverdy Johnson encourages the young lawyer. He explains that every civilian has a right to a fair trial and a proper defense according to the constitution. Aiken takes these words seriously, even when its not in his best interest.
Despite being a loyal Union soldier, Aiken gets no sympathy for his choice to defend Surrat. He is seen as a traitor by his friends. He loses his girlfriend, gets banned from social events and generally regarded as loathsome. If that wasn't enough, the trial is staked against him. They hold court in a unconstitutional military tribunal. The defendant isn't allowed to speak for herself, the witnesses are all blackmailed by the prosecution. But this Frederic Aiken never gives up.
If you are a historian, you probably already know the outcome of the trial. If you are not, then I don't want to spoil the ending for you. I will say that some good comes out of the situation. The epilogue tells us that laws were written and enacted that prevented such trials from occurring again. Does that make it all worth it? Probably not, but its still some damn fine cinema.