Seems I am destined to watch period movies centered on wronged women. My second of the weekend is Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, which tells the true story of Mary Surratt who was accused of helping plot Lincoln’s assassination. Robin Wright (formerly Penn) plays Surratt, the only woman charged in the conspiracy along with 6 men and the first woman executed by the US government. James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken the young lawyer who reluctantly took her case.

The assassination took place just as the bloody Civil War was winding down, and so the Northern sentiment was still strongly anti-Rebel and a battlefield mentality still prevailed. With Lincoln dead, Secretary of War Stanton (Kevin Kline) stepped into the power vacuum and decided that the trial should be in a military court with the outcome pretty much predetermined by a community reeling from the death of the President.  “Revenge,” as her lawyer puts it, “not justice.”  Surratt ran a boardinghouse, where John Wilkes Booth and the others met to plan the murder.  Surratt’s son was a part of the conspiracy but escaped, and so the film suggests, they were using her to get to him.

Aiken is a young Union officer, just back from the fighting, and returning to his law practice, when his boss lays the job of defending “the traitor” in his lap.  He doesn’t want to have anything to do with it, but comes to see that she is probably innocent, and that the powers that be are not interested in the truth, only in “getting this behind us.”  In fact, it was this case that forced the government to mandate civilian trials for non-combatants.

It is an interesting and little-known story, but The Conspirator suffers from a script that is a way too thinly veiled and heavy-handed political allegory.  Think Gitmo and Arab-Americans in post-9/11 America. I’m all for nice political dramas, but the “hammer over your head” approach just doesn’t do it for me.  Despite wonderful casting, the characters are mainly one-dimensional and the script totally lacking in nuance.  We all know Redford can direct a wonderful movie (Ordinary People), but he totally misses the mark on this one.

(An interesting footnote at the end tells us that after Aiken left the law, he went on to become the first editor in chief at The Washington Post.)


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