Starring Robin Penn Wright, James McAvoy, Kevin Kline and Evan Rachel Wood
Directed by Robert Redford
Rated PG-13, 122 minutes
Release date April 15, 2011
Robert Redford is much better known as an actor, but he directs rather than stars in The Conspirator, a gripping dramatization of an event that happened just as the bloody Civil War was drawing to a close.
Robin Wright Penn gives a powerful performance as Mary Surratt, a boarding-house operator charged with conspiracy after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The shooter, John Wilkes Booth, had been known to hold clandestine meetings, attended by her son, in Mary’s inn.
Mary’s son, John, fled and evaded the dragnet of Booth’s associates after Lincoln’s murder. But Mary was rounded up along with the other men, imprisoned and charged with treason.
Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is a Union army hero fresh off the battlefield and anxious to resume his law practice. He’s none too pleased with being assigned Mary’s public defender, but soon sees she’s being railroaded.
He wants her to have a fair trial, not a government-sanctioned lynching.
Kevin Kline plays the Lincoln’s hawkish Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who ominously intones that “someone must be held accountable” for the Chief of State’s murder, even if it means bending judicial rules. Evan Rachel Wood is Mary’s distraught daughter, Anna, called to account for her own connections to Booth.
Tom Wilkinson, who memorably portrayed Ben Franklin in the HBO series John Adams, is Sen. Reverdy Johnson, a former Secretary of State who thinks the military trial of Mary, a civilian, is a perversion of the U.S. Constitution.
Stephen Root, a chameleon of a character actor with more than 150 movie and TV roles to his credit, has one brief but solid scene as a former employee of Mary’s. His unease on the witness stand convinces Aiken his damaging testimony is tainted.
The Conspirator conveys the heaviness of its story and its setting—a torn nation desperate to heal the lingering wounds on both sides of its Mason-Dixon line.
At times it seems a bit heavy-handed and overly portentous, as if Redford is trying too hard to drive home the parallels to modern-day concerns about the differences between justice and revenge, especially in times of anxiety about war, tyrants, terrorism and rampant fear about enemies who strike from within.
But the movie avoids depicting Mary Surratt as a martyr, and it leaves the matter of her guilt or innocence deliberately murky. “Have you ever cared for anything greater than yourself?” she asks her young attorney, and it’s unclear whether she’s referring to the son her maternal instincts won’t let her betray, or the Southern cause she may still support in her heart.
How this incident ends is a matter of record. But most viewers probably won’t be familiar with Serratt’s tale, making The Conspirator a riveting review of a fascinating historical footnote.