On April 15, the 146th anniversary of the death of President Lincoln, “The Conspirator” opened in theatres.
The film begins on a battleground littered with mostly dead Union soldiers. You are introduced to Frederick Aikens (James McAvoy) and his friend Nicholas Baker (Justin Long), both severely injured. Why this short scene? So you get a feeling of the loss and the reason for the animosity that the North and South had for one another.
Cut to two years later, when you see the wheels in motion of the assassination of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) and the brutal attack of William Seward by Lewis Paine (Norman Reedus). Mary Surratt (Robin Wright Penn) is arrested and charged with knowingly harboring the meetings at her boarding house and helping the plotters.
As Mary is forced to endure solitary confinement and face a military trial, even though she is a civilian, you get the sense of her desperation, helplessness and sadness. Frederick, a Union lawyer, is assigned to her case. He’s not happy and tries to convince his mentor, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), to not choose him.
The lack of trust between lawyer and client is evident as he is convinced she is probably guilty and she doesn’t think this Union lawyer is on her southern mother side. It is a subtle change that, as the trial progresses, Frederick evolves from a Union lawyer to a lawyer who once again believes in the letter of the law and soon starts to realize the military panel and prosecution have stacked the cards against Mary.
The film is well written and moves along at a nice steady pace. Telling parts of the story with flashbacks, provides a little backdrop on some of the other characters and the frame of their minds. In a time of the loss from war, disease and now the death of the president, The Secretary of War (Kevin Kline) is demanding swift, harsh punishment to both appease and to protect the country. The Secretary Of War also feels that the harsh punishment of Mary Surratt will send a strong message to the South.
“The Conspirator” has a great look; the sets and costumes transport you back to 1865. The cast looked like they belonged in the era and not modern people portraying them.
In addition, the actors give strong performances — even the actors in the background and the accused as they sat in the stands. One of the most dramatic scenes had no words spoken. You see several characters reach the slow realization that they are at the end of their lives. As they start to break down and cry, you can feel how scared those people were. It was a powerful moment.
I think Robert Redford has done a wonderful job telling this story of historical events and showing at the same time the political machine that tries to send the country people a message: “Don’t worry, we have it under control.”
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