Sunday, April 17, 2011


One thing can always be for certain in a Robert Redford-directed film: Intelligence. His work is always smart; completely devoid of big Hollywood ingredients like loud noises, useless sequels, and cheap thrills and (goddamn) 3D. THE CONSPIRATOR can and will be a perfect example of his efforts; not only smart, but well-made, well acted, and able to reach any audience.

Seven men and one woman, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright Penn), are arrested and accused of conspiring to murder Abraham Lincoln. Surratt ran a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his gang met and made their plans, and may or may-not-have been in on the plot. Assigned to defend Surratt is Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), and his mentor Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Aiken doesn’t believe his client to be innocent, but soon finds the government is more than ready to break their own courtroom laws to convict Surratt. Aiken battles Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), and Surratt’s own daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) to at least prove that grave injustices are being done, whether or not Surratt is guilty.

THE CONSPIRATOR is a crime-to-courtroom drama not dissimilar to a LAW AND ORDER episode. While most films that follow a TV formula tend to fail, it works well here. What drives it home is not just the performances Redford gets out of his actors, but a strong focus on the injustices done. Redford turns most of, if not all of his attention to the governments’ ignorance of their own laws to achieve an end; outrageous behavior that can will and leave the viewer outraged, and wonder if the same thing could happen again in today’s day and age.

While the film might seem like Redford is trying to push an agenda (no, not him), THE CONSPIRATOR tends to impress because the strong courtroom drama tends to develop the characters. The situation and events that unfold bring out the best and worst in the characters. Where most filmmakers fall into the trap of letting a character take over or dominate the proceedings, Redford lets things develop naturally; letting the characters breath and stay in their places. Smart. Very smart. Also worth a gold star is the way Washington DC in the 1860’s is vividly brought to life; eye-popping while never going overboard on flash and show.

Equally impressive are the performances Redford gets out of his ensemble cast. Each actor somehow vanishes into the parts, and most viewers would be hard-pressed to recognize who is in the movie. McAvoy, Wilkinson, and Kline are all excellent. Penn nearly steals the show with her performance of a condemned woman resigned to her fate, and the last 10 minutes are hers and hers alone.

THE CONSPIRATOR reaches a lot of people with its overall approach; it can be successful as a feature film as well as an educational piece for history buffs and law students. The question of whether or not Surratt was actually guilty is never really answered; but unlike a LAW AND ORDER episode, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is the path taken to put her in the noose. This is an important film.



  1. Could not agree with you more! Saw this movie opening day and, though I consider myself to be somewhat of a history buff, had no idea about some of the specifics around this trial. Indeed I came right home to the computer to check some details and was impressed with how accurate the film really is! I would make this a 'must see' for students studying American History Many viewers will be shocked at the way this was allowed to happen! David DeCosmo

  2. Thank you David...If I was a history teacher or a law professor I would make it a point to show this film to my students. There is a LOT to be learned from this movie...


A few rules:
1. Personal attacks not tolerated.
2. Haters welcome, if you can justify it.
3. Swearing is goddamn OK.