Mary Surratt is the lone female charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination trial of Abraham Lincoln. As the whole nation turns against her, she is forced to rely on her reluctant lawyer to uncover the truth and save her life.
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In the wake of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of State. The lone woman charged, Mary Surratt, 42, owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks. Against the ominous back-drop of post-Civil War Washington, newly-minted lawyer, Frederick Aiken, a 28-year-old Union war-hero, reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal. As the trial unfolds, Aiken realizes his client may be innocent and that she is being used as bait and hostage in order to capture the only conspirator to have escaped a massive manhunt, her own son. Written by
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Guilty or innocent, "The Conspirator" gets it all right
"The Conspirator" is an impossible trial to win, but it's tried by the best cast in the best manner possible. Heroes returned home from the Civil War to be greeted by the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) and other high-profile members of the War Department. President Abraham Lincoln was occupied elsewhere.
After the assassination of Lincoln, we follow not so much the trials of the conspirators, but the trials of lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). McAvoy has quickly forged an incredible career where he has a propensity to play the man next to historical figures and provide us with an inside view (like the doctor to Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland" or secretary to Leo Tolstoy in "The Last Station").
Here, McAvoy is the very patriotic soldier-turned-lawyer defending Mary Surrat (Robin Wright), the lone female conspirator. The film focuses only on Surrat's part of the trial of the conspirators, mostly because this film is about her lawyer. A devout supporter of Stanton and the Union, Aiken believed that Surrat was guilty and spent just as much time proving her guilt as her innocence. His internal struggles accepting everything that he had to do and what he should do were rather profound. I also think they make up McAvoy's best performance of his career. Too bad that the Academy will have forgotten it by the time the Oscars come around.
Like the best historical dramas, Redford never comes out and says if he believes that Surrat was innocent or guilty. "The Conspirator" isn't about that. This is about the trial. His views on the use of a military tribunal versus a civil trial are clear.
I was blown away by the impeccable production, the cast, and the sheer atrocities committed by so many of the characters not on trial. There may have been a few artistic licences taken, but I doubt it was with the extremes to which some military personnel will go. The great Kevin Kline and the up-and-coming Johnny Simmons play the two least sympathetic characters in the movie. Phenomenal casting is just one the great aspects of "The Conspirator".
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