conspiratorCivil War Law

The Conspirator
Stars: Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Justin Long, Evan Rachel Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Colm Meany and Norman Reedus
Director: Robert Redford
Scriptwriter: James D. Solomon
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
American Film Company/Lionsgate
Rating: R for wartime violence
Running Length: 125 minutes


Robert Redford takes care in directing a film. There is attention to detail such as costumes, scenery, choice of actors and best of all---a story. In “The Conspirator,” we learn about the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who owned a boarding house in which John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) was a visitor and friend of Mary’s son, John (Johnny Simmons). We know surface details of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It was Civil War time, extreme bitterness and hatred around the country, families divided and a president whom some revered and who some wanted dead. In the aftermath of the murder, there were several trials and the one of Mary Surratt is detailed in this film.

The film begins on a Civil War battlefield where two soldiers are wounded. One is Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) and the other, Nicholas Baker (Justin Long.) Aiken insists Long get treatment before him, effectively saving his life. Then, we come to the story of Mary Surratt. Mary and her late husband were not wealthy people, and after his death she ran a boarding house, with help from her daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) and usually absent son. We are observers to the assassination at Ford’s Theater, and the hunt for John Wilkes Booth. Not only was Booth hunted, but anyone who was a friend, relative, distant cousin, associate, next-door-neighbor to him, and in this net was Mary Surratt. She is accused of being a participant in the murder and swiftly jailed. She is the only woman there. Mary proclaims her innocence and believes her strong Catholic faith will save her. Enter Frederick Aiken who is assigned her case. At first, they don't trust each other, but as Aiken gets further into the details he realizes there is a strong possibility that Mary is innocent, being railroaded into a guilty verdict and judged by a military tribunal through she is a civilian. Her son, John, is nowhere to be found and either he is the guilty one or Mary is. The court moves faster and faster with the trial, aided by Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline doing everything but twirl a moustache), and a military man, David Hunter (Colm Meany). We see how the church works behind the scenes to help Mary and how the government works to convince everyone of her guilt. Does this sound familiar? It would seem that in each war the U.S. has been in, there is a case that bounces between civilian court and military court.

Robin Wright takes the role of Mary Surratt and makes it her own. Here is a woman who won't let anyone see her true feelings and feels betrayed at every turn. James McAvoy as Aiken, has to prove himself in court and go against the big guns with reason and clarity, all the while knowing that his name and reputation are on the line. Justin Long, as Aiken’s friend, is the voice of reason, trying to keep his friend on an even keel. Evan Rachel Wood as Mary’s daughter, is the innocent victim. Her home is trashed, her brother gone, mother in prison, and she has nothing left. Danny Huston is the prosecuting attorney, Joseph Holt, who moves through rhetoric with ease, but keeps a wary eye on Aiken. It is a fine cast that tells a historical story and lets the audience decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong.

Costumes and set design are first rate. One can see why Civil War re-enactors can get caught up in this history of our country. The end of the film tells you what happened in later years. ThoughThe Conspirator has the tinge of a documentary in that there is a definite timeline, performances propel the film forward and bring the characters to life. Robin Wright looks remarkably like Mary Surratt in this film and the final scenes in prison and the prison courtyard are harrowing. Redford did it just right.

Copyright 2011 Marie Asner