Film Review: The Conspirator

Directed by Robert Redford, this is a clever and decidedly frank dramatic tale of what happens, when a nation and its leaders feel they are under threat. His direction is stunning in this film.

Specifically, when Abraham Lincoln, the current president is assassinated as well as the secretary of state. In this film, the Civil War has apparently ended, at least the fighting has and on the 14th of April, 1865 the unthinkable happens, at a theatre.

All are appalled and when the others that were planning such a heinous crime, are arrested and named, they too are tainted with the same brush of guilt by the media of the day, and by extension, the general populace.

Including a young lawyer, Frederick Aiken, recently returned from a soldier's life, fighting on the union side of the Civil War, here portrayed by James McAvoy. Here in this film, it is really quite hard to even imagine that he is Scottish and not American.

He has possibly the most believable American accent in this film, aside from that of Tom Wilkinson, another brilliant actor who shows what he is capable of in this film, as a Southern man, who after realising that his defence of Mary Surratt, (portrayed brilliantly by Robin Wright) the only woman charged alongside the other men that were arrested for their part in the assassination, might be tinged with prejudice, hands over the defence to Mr Aiken, who has already made his mind up about the whole affair.

Sadly enough, he is not the only one. Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, has seemingly pulled all manner of strings and arms, to ensure that the men and woman charged with treasonous things are to be tried by a military tribunal and are prevented from speaking in their own defence, as well as that they are not to be tried by a jury of their peers. On top of which, the men in the commission and the judge, prosecuting attorney are all hand picked by Mr Stanton. Who is portrayed in this film by Kevin Kline, another excellent actor who well and truly proves he is quite flexible with the roles he takes on.

The nation is afraid, and Mr Stanton used that fear to ensure that the trial and the seemingly predetermined result would be reached swiftly. He wants justice but is willing to forego rights that merely eighty nine years ago were agreed upon. (Interestingly enough, Danny Huston, who plays the prosecuting attorney really well was Samuel Adams in the mini series John Adams, alongside Tom Wilkinson who portrayed Benjamin Franklin in the same series)

Into this madness, steps young Mr Aiken, and despite the prejudice of the court and the bought and bullied witnesses, argues his case with great reasoning and speaks quite passionately and eloquently of what he is fighting for. To save a woman's life. I am reminded by another film, where another lawyer fights just as passionately against an unjust system. That being of course, To Kill a Mockingbird. The script here is in this film, is just as tight and emotional leaving no room for pause.

To those who thrive on historical accuracies in their films, let me say this:
A historical drama without emotion lines and artistic licence, might as well as be a documentary. That said, it is in the credits that every care was taken to make this film historically accurate. I wouldn't be surprised to find that they looked up everything relevant from this period in history.

As one of the end titles, concerns the fact that a year after the trial, the Supreme Court ruled that even in times of war, they would not use a military  tribunal to try civilians. And that John Surratt, the son of Mary Surratt was tried thus, with a jury of citizens from both the northern and southern sides of the country. He was set free.

The supporting actors in this film are no less brilliant than the mains. Justin Long, Alexis Bledel, Evan Rachel Wood, Colm Meaney and Johnny Simmons all portray their roles quite well and it is impressive especially to see that Mr Long is quite as flexible as Mr Kline, maybe more.

I would like to finish with the score, as Mark Isham's work in this film is just as subtle and moving as his work in the films; The Secret Life of Bees, The Net, Save the Last Dance, In Her Shoes, Freedom Writers and Bobby.


  1. The first quote comes from another historical drama that gives the same tense feeling:

    Queen Elizabeth I: "Go back to your rathole! Tell Philip I fear neither him, nor his priests, nor his armies. Tell him if he wants to shake his little fist at us, we're ready to give him such a bite he'll wish he'd kept his hands in his pockets!
    Don Guerau De Spes: You see a leaf fall, and you think you know which way the wind blows. Well, there is a wind coming, Madame, that will sweep away your pride.
    [Turns to leave with his ministers]
    Queen Elizabeth I: I, too, can command the wind, sir! I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare if you dare to try me!"

    And the second comes from a film where they were trying to bring a man to justice using the media, instead of any court of law:

    James Reston, Jr.: "You know the first and greatest sin of the deception of television is that it simplifies; it diminishes great, complex ideas, stretches of time; whole careers become reduced to a single snapshot. At first I couldn't understand why Bob Zelnick was quite as euphoric as he was after the interviews, or why John Birt felt moved to strip naked and rush into the ocean to celebrate. But that was before I really understood the reductive power of the close-up, because David had succeeded on that final day, in getting for a fleeting moment what no investigative journalist, no state prosecutor, no judiciary committee or political enemy had managed to get; Richard Nixon's face swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing and defeat. The rest of the project and its failings would not only be forgotten, they would totally cease to exist."


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