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The Conspirator

One bullet killed the president. But not one man.

Historically accurate, supremely relevant, and yet politically polarizing, The Conspirator is the first feature film to come from Joe Rickett’s newly formed American Film Company, whose aim is to produce engaging, authentic films from America’s storied past. The fledgling film company scored its first major coup when it convinced Robert Redford to board the project as director, its second was completing the film within a single year. Redford took little convincing once he’d read the script and with American Film Company just as eager to get underway, production would rely on screenwriter James Solomon’s well-researched script. Having come from a background in journalism, Solomon’s extraordinary research of the events surrounding the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, led him to trial transcripts and obscure writings where he was able to piece together the complex story of his main characters and bathe the tale in exacting period details. The result is a riveting conspiracy thriller with a heart-breaking mother/son story at its heart. Redford’s brand of deliberately paced storytelling actually works to his favor here, lending an air of authenticity and richness to the proceedings. The film just feels important. But being a Redford film, we also know and understand that despite an 1865 setting, it’s not just about 1865. It’s also a metaphor for a post-9/11 America where some believe bending the constitution makes sense for a bit of temporary safety. Charging forward at light speed during its opening scenes where we experience the end of the Civil War and the assassination plots of government heads, the film eventually settles on the story of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), owner of the Washington boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators stayed leading up to their attempted assassinations of Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward and, of course, the successful assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Seeking swift justice for a grieving nation, the Federal government rounds up the accused group of eight conspirators and places them before a military tribunal rather than a civilian court. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union Army veteran and recent law school graduate is assigned to defend Mary Surratt despite what he perceives to be a predetermined negative outcome. McAvoy brilliantly transforms his Aiken from naïve young junior lawyer to a champion of Constitutional rights. But his brick wall comes in the form of the prosecution headed by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) and Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General in Stanton’s War Department (Danny Huston) who, under the directive of now President Andrew Johnson are eager for a swift verdict and harsh punishment, even at the expense of a few innocents. The assassination conspiracy may become secondary to the conspiracy of political expediency. Solomon’s story finds most of its success in the dynamic between Aiken and Mary Surratt. He’s never convinced of his client’s innocence and she never says much of anything to aid her defense. But Aiken does realize that anything short of a fair trial is as big a crime as the one of which Mary’s accused, conspiring to kill the president. Wright plays her role as that of a grim martyr. She’s a mother, a widow, a Catholic, and a Confederate who was likely wrongfully accused, but her actions represent the ultimate sacrifice. It’s the choices one makes as a mother that transcend all questions of guilt or innocence, and Wright makes us pity her Mary, even though she never displays a moment of mercy. Those unable to set aside their political bent for a couple hours will likely find enough issue with Redford’s glaring 9/11 parallels to work themselves into a healthy partisan lather, but historians and lovers of fascinating storytelling about little-known historical events will be captivated by the powerful and true story about America then and now. Four out of five stars Frank Wilkins, Reel Reviews Official Trailer
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Directed by: 
Robert Redford
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