“The Conspirator”
Ever wonder how the Lincoln assassination really happened? “The Conspirator” won’t answer all your questions. But you’ll feel like you know as much as anyone else involved, and even better, you’ll feel like you were there. Robert Redford’s direction is that good.
We begin on a field of battle, during the Civil War. A Yankee captain, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), is lying on the ground, aching from a gut shot, but he doesn’t seem as worried about that as he is making sure his badly-wounded buddy beside him doesn’t fade into oblivion. When the stretcher-bearers finally arrive, he insists they take his friend first, even while they try to tell him that it’s too late for that.
Fast-forward a couple of years, to the end of the war. Captain Aiken has fully recovered from his battle wound, and is now attached to the adjutant general’s office. He’s learning the practice of law while still in uniform, and so looks forward to going home and establishing his law practice as a civilian when the war finally ends. But just after the armistice is declared, President Lincoln is shot. His murderer, John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) manages to escape, for a time, until he is hunted down and killed. Several of his co-conspirators, however, were immediately captured, and since it turned out they held their meetings in a local boarding house, the proprietress of the boarding house, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), is also arrested, and charged with the same crime of treason. It is Captain Aiken’s unwelcome job to defend her.
First he tries to refuse the assignment, but his superior officer won’t let him. (He doesn’t want the case, either, and is happy to delegate it to a subordinate.) At first, Captain Aiken is downright hostile to his imprisoned client, then merely rude, and only after half-heartedly attempting an objective investigation does he become convinced that she, in fact, is innocent, but the highly-charged political climate makes it nearly impossible to convince anyone else of that. The outraged populace wants revenge. And their pound of flesh they shall have.
Robin Wright plays a complex conspirator. While in solitary confinement, she alternately prays, fasts, and refuses to speak to the guards. She will claim she doesn’t know anything, and Mr. Booth was merely another paying customer, but then it comes to light that her son was one of his confidants, and she clams up again. Mr. Aiken strongly suspects that she knows more than she’s telling, though he still doesn’t believe her to be guilty of conspiring in the assassination plot. But all his friends think he’s nuts to try so hard, and care so much. But he can’t help himself. Like being wounded on that battlefield, he feels he’s doing the right thing by trying to help someone else.
It’s easy to find out what happened before watching the film, but if you’re unfamiliar enough with the actual military tribunal, and its outcome, it’s this reviewer’s recommendation that you let the movie unfold the events for you. It tells the story in a compelling way, even though there’s a lot of messing around with light and shadow angles. It’s still riveting. And the formal costumes and stilted language and stuffy decorum are such that you’ll feel that you were there in the courtroom yourself.
“The Conspirator” is not a lighthearted comedy, and it doesn’t bother with romance. It’s not exactly the History Channel, but it is based on historical facts. You’ll just have to make up your own mind about the veracity of the verdict.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas