We all know that the actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth (played in The Conspirator by Toby Kebbell) assassinated US President Abraham Lincoln (Gerald Bestrom) and was later killed during capture by Union soldiers, but did he work alone? It’ll come as a surprise to many people that he was part of a much greater plot that also involved the planned assassination of Vice President Andrew Jackson (Dennis Clark) and Secretary of State William Seward, neither of whom was killed, though Seward was stabbed repeatedly.
The conspiracy that surrounding Lincoln’s assassination is perfect for a historical film and director Robert Redford delivers an excellent drama with The Conspirator, one well worth watching both for its historical value and because it’s just a darn good film with more than one surprise twist.
The film centers on Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), mother of conspirator John Surratt (Johnny Simmons). By running a boarding house in Washington DC where the conspirators hatched their plot, was she therefore culpable as an accomplice? The heads of the military tribunal, Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Klein), clearly believe she’s guilty and that the pretense of any trial is a waste of time, but was Mary truly guilty?
The thankless task of defending her rests with newly graduated lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who wrestles with matters of constitutional fairness (why a military tribunal when the accused is a civilian?) and the negative social effects of defending a much hated woman in a public court of inquiry, along with his own questions of her guilt or innocence. A former Union soldier, there’s an additional layer of conflict with his peers as he professes his belief that Mary is, in fact, innocent of knowledge of the conspiracy.
The events of the film take place in late 1865, as the Civil War is winding down. As with any war, the truce has been signed but not every Confederate soldier has accepted their defeat, and it’s from this seed that the conspirators hatch the idea of kidnapping the President to sow confusion into the Union government, a last hurrah, as it were. But when President Lincoln changes his travel plans unexpectedly, the plot takes a fatal turn from kidnapping (the original plan was to hold Lincoln hostage in return for the release of all Confederate soldiers in Union jails) to murder.
An interesting story and momentous events don’t make a great movie, however. That comes from a smart script, able actors, an ability to recreate the times and setting and a director, cinematographer and wardrobe team that can make us not only feel we’re seeing events as they happened, but become engaged in the story. Redford and his team (writer James Solomon and Gregory Bernstein, cinematographer Newton Sigel and costume designer Louise Frogley) have pulled together all of these ingredients and delivered one of the most compelling historical dramas that’s made it to the silver screen in quite a while.
Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) and Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) from The Conspirator
Having said that, it’s also fair to point out that the film starts out slowly and lags at times. Courtroom dramas are tricky and though much of the film is flashbacks and events external to the tribunal, the trial of Mary Surratt on the charge of conspiracy to assassinate the President, and her spirited defense by Frederick Aiken is central to the film and definitely not to everyone’s tastes.
Still, in an era where movies are defined by special effects and explosions, it was a pleasure to watch a well-acted, well-staged historical drama that both illuminated an important and fascinating moment in American history and entertained the appreciative audience. I recommend it.