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Guilty or innocent, "The Conspirator" gets it all right
napierslogs21 May 2011
"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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Presents its message in a clear and powerful way
Howard Schumann14 May 2011
Robert Redford's The Conspirator dramatizes the military trial of Mary Suratt, a boarding house owner accused of harboring conspirators and being involved in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. It is a strong, if somewhat obvious, drama that depicts the mood of hysteria that followed the assassination, and suggests its relevance to today's politics. Written by James Solomon who spent fourteen years researching the story, the film opens with a brief introduction showing the agony of combat troops in the Civil War, then focuses on the assassination of the President on April 14, 1865 by actor John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell), a Southern partisan and his companions Lewis Payne (Norman Reedus), David Herold (Marcus Hester), and Samuel Arnold (Jeremy Tuttle) at the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C..

Stealthily entering the President's box, Booth shoots Lincoln in the head, then leaps onto the stage shouting "sic semper tyrannis" (thus always to tyrants), and escapes on horseback. The assassination results in an outpouring of grief all over the country, and prompts the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) to vow revenge against the conspirators. After a two week search, Booth is found hiding in a nearby barn and shot to death, while seven suspected co-conspirators are arrested including Mary Suratt. Suratt is tried by a military tribunal where the rules state that only a majority vote is required for a guilty verdict and a two-thirds vote is needed to sentence a defendant to death. It is a court where a defendant is prohibited from testifying in their own defense.

Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) from Virginia and a former U. S. Attorney General agrees to defend Suratt on the grounds that she is innocent until proved guilty. The Senator, however, withdraws because he fears that being a Southerner might prejudice his case, and asks Frederick Aiken (James McEvoy), a northern attorney to defend her. Initially reluctant and dubious about her story, Aiken resolves to prove her innocence after seeing that the defendant was up against an overbearing prosecutor (Danny Huston), a biased head of the tribunal (Colm Meany), and the behind-the-scenes antagonism of Secretary Stanton.

At great cost to his personal life, Aiken tries to prove that Ms. Suratt knew the boarders who lived in her house, but was not involved in their conspiracy. As the case progresses, it becomes apparent that only her son John (Johnny Simmons), a known conspirator who fled to Canada, can save his mother by surrendering. While there is limited dimension to the characters, The Conspirator is true to the historical record and the film presents its message in a clear and powerful way. Redford, long a champion of civil liberties, implicitly reminds us that the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution expressly guarantees that "no person shall be deprived of life without due process of law" and provides no exception for war.

It is not only an important message for those unfamiliar with our nation's history, but is strikingly relevant to the present day in which hundreds of detainees at Guantanamo still languish in prison without trial, where a U.S. citizen, suspected of terrorist activities, is targeted for an assassination attempt without having been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crime, and where the ideal of due process and the presumption of innocence is slowly being replaced by unlimited violence, the repudiation of legality, and the undermining of democracy.
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History repeat
supah7912 August 2011
The Conspiritor uses an event that happened 150 years ago to tell a story which is all too familiar in our time. The backdrop off a shocking, sad event and the following massive public outcry pushes the powers to be to extreme measures, which they stand by because they feel to be forced to do or because they really believe it to be the only right thing.

Robert Redford has been well known for his political views and has displayed them already in the somewhat uneven Lions for Lambs. I like filmmakers who speak out. I can maybe not always agree, but I wholeheartedly admire that in this time of mindless action drivel like Transformers, Drive Angry and The Mechanic there is still hope for without trying to be arrogant: meaningful films. Redford uses the assassination of Lincoln to portray a nation in mourning and sadness. The Civil War was all but over and the policymakers were already planning the next step: the forming of a real Union. The assassination of Lincoln endangered the entire Union. The people wanted revenge and Edwin Stanton (an excellent Kevin Kline) serves it cold. Since her son is nowhere to be found anywhere, he settles for the next thing: his mother Mary Surrat. 'I don't care which one it is, as long as one of them pays the price'. Young Frederick Alken (James McAvoy) has the ungrateful task of defending her.

I don't know much about the Civil War and the period after that, so I can't say how accurate this film is. But what I can say is that it's a masterpiece in creating a period not so distant from our current world. If you replace the assassination of Lincoln with the 9/11-attacks, you have a film that stands firm. It asks relevant questions and holds a mirror right up to our faces. Are seeing clearly? In the sadness and outrage of such a shocking event, do we still see clearly what's going on? Do we still, as a people, have perspective enough to define friend from foe from guilty to innocent? Do our leaders have the capability, strength and courage to make us see or tell us 'no' when we are wrong? Or do policies, political views or elections hold them back and make them just give the public what they want? Mary Surrat, Lincoln, Osama Bin Laden, Afghanistan, Bush, Edward Stanton, Abu Grahib, post Civil War Washington, Guantanomo Bay. History repeats itself over and over again. When will we learn? Guilty or innocent. Is it important? Do we care? I give this film 8 out of 10.
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A very historically accurate, dramatic film.
anneboleyn1515 March 2011
I had the pleasure of viewing this film at a press screening recently, as well as hearing an interesting Q&A afterwords. I was very impressed with this film.

I've read extensively about the topic of the Lincoln assassination, and came into the theatre expecting another Hollywood style period piece, one that minces facts and creates story lines where there are none. I came out feeling very contented, and a little teary. This movie is very well acted and truly conveys the emotion felt by the characters in history, unlike some civil war films.

This movie truly is about the struggle between justice and country. I won't give much away, but the emotional conflicts in this film are very deep and strong. I was very surprised at James Mcavoy's handling of the character, and more so his good American accent :D. Robin Wright and other supporting cast are also superb. Do see this movie when it comes out! It's a fantastic drama that will keep you at the edge of your seat, mixed in with fantastic period details. Any fan of American history and the civil war will enjoy this.
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Great film, not just Civil War history buffs
emc522828 March 2011
Saw the film today, I was very impressed. Yes somethings looked wrong (mostly uniform items) but on the whole a job well done. Great film locations and acting. James MacAvoy follows his outstanding performance in Last King of Scotland with a tour de force. Robin Wright plays her role just right. Kevin Kline's performance might be my favorite of his ever. Outstanding period feel with great on site shooting at homes in Savannah, GA. Got the impression that at least the film company made a serious effort to get the look right. The Q and A after the screen I attended really highlighted the efforts they put into the film to get it right. Noted historian James McPherson was a consultant strongly recommended film when it comes out on April 15th.
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Redford's version of historical event is flawed but interesting...
Neil Doyle21 April 2011
Once again, the young actor JAMES McAVOY gives an earnest and altogether convincing portrait of a man assigned to be the defense lawyer for Mary Surratt, accused as one of the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Since the whole story is told from his point of view, it emerges as a realistic depiction of how events might have unfolded, taking no firm stand on the innocence or guilt of the accused. As the nation mourns the sudden death of its leader taken from them just as the Civil War ended, we are told that justice must be swift to heal the wounds of the public and satisfy a thirst for revenge. It's that viewpoint that makes this film relevant today, in view of other controversial historical events, but first and foremost the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

One glaring quibble: Apparently, to fully immerse the viewer in this time of history and to suit the flavor of the grim tale, Redford has chosen to use very muted color photography so that this is almost a sepia tone experience. But do we have to be reminded so flagrantly that this was the candlelit era? Scenes outside of the courtroom could have used flashes of real color, as could the social circle interiors of other scenes instead of keeping the low-key lighting so constant. It became a distraction for me. He may as well have used glorious B&W.

Other technical aspects are fine and the background score is effective without becoming overwhelming. ROBIN WRIGHT PENN plays Mary Surratt with quiet dignity and strength. KEVIN KLINE is almost unrecognizable as the stubbornly determined EDWIN STANTON seeking quick justice, EVAN RACHEL WOOD is effective as the distraught daughter Anna Surratt, and JOHNNY SIMMONS is sobering as the accused woman's son who manages to escape imprisonment for his role in the John Wilkes Booth caper. His character, unfortunately, isn't fleshed out at all.

Biggest supporting role goes to TOM WILKINSON as the man who urges McAvoy to take the defense case against his wishes. He and McAvoy share most of the running time on screen and do magnificent jobs.

History buffs will no doubt find this more interesting than the average movie fan looking for a more adventurous look at the past, but despite flaws, it is competently made and does recreate the actual events in a satisfying manner by use of flashbacks and an intelligent script. But did it have to be so dark?
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An eye-opening film, with an exemplary ensemble cast
jesusgilmontano6 April 2011
Robert Redford has assembled an impressively strong cast to bring to the screen a very important and poignant story. Watching this film a couple of weeks ago, I did not know what to expect. What I got was a great film about the trials of the people that were involved behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Robin Wright delivers one of the best performances of her career, in a role that seemed tailor-made for her.

Redford follows up a politically charged film (Lions for Lambs) with a historically charged film, that definitely is not light on the politics. However, he does succeed at presenting the unknown story of a loving mother and clearly stating the events that followed Lincoln's assassination.

The film transported me back in time. Beautifully shot, supported by amazing art direction and costumes, and driven by James McAvoy strong performance, "The Conspirator" stands as a movie for the times, that will definitely be revisited for years to come.
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Four stars and two thumbs way up!
dtucker8615 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
As far back as I can remember, I have always been a Lincoln/Kennedy assassination buff. There are many similarities between the lives and deaths of the two men, sadly one of them is that we will never know the entire truth behind their deaths. I eagerly awaited this film and I will say up front that it was well worth the wait. Except for the 1998 TNT-TV film The Day Lincoln Was Shot, this is the finest motion picture about the terrible events of April 14, 1865. For this history lover, watching this masterwork was like reading history by flashes of lightning! Robert Redford is a true genius as a director. He won an Oscar for the 1980 movie Ordinary People and as far as I'm concerned the Academy should just mail him another right now and save everyone a lot of trouble! This great filmmaker perfectly captures the mood, texture and feel of the nation after the assassination when people wanted revenge and not justice and innocent people paid a terrible price. People don't realize that Lincoln's death caused the country as much heartache as JFKs did. There can be not greater injustice then an innocent person being executed and watching this film I am convinced beyond any possible doubt that poor Mary Surrat was such a person. Robin Wright, Mrs. Forrest Gump, is amazing as this dignified, brave woman. She should also get Oscar gold. She is a simple widow who is caught up in this race for vengeance. You feel for this poor woman who is caught in a nightmare. A young actor called James McAvoy also shines as her young lawyer who at first is reluctant and then fights with passion. The courtroom scenes are the best I have seen since A Few Good Men. I was so angry because Mary Surrat and the others were illegally tried by a military court. It was later ruled that this trial should never have taken place. It was a trial that stank with perjury and she did not stand a chance. SPOILER ALERT, the final scene of the hanging is bone chilling. You feel like a time traveler standing there watching it. To me, this is Robin Wright's finest hour as an actress as she bravely faces death while her three male counterparts are weeping. Robin made Mary Surrat seem so real to me and that is the greatest compliment that you can pay an actor. I was so angry at her cowardly son John. He was the real culprit. He was the one who was going to help Booth and the others escape. The assumption is (and this film makes a convincing case) that the government only arrested Mary to draw out her son and when he did not come forward, they had no choice but to hang her. SPOILER ALERT, in the last scene of the film after the execution John Surrat is finally caught and there is a scene where Aiken visits him in jail and gives him his mother's religious jewelry. The credits mention that John Surrat was tried but set free, I hoped that he never had a happy day for the rest of his life because his mother's innocent blood was always on his filthy hands. This is a four star two thumbs up masterpieces and this is the reason that we go to the movies.
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a terrific film with a small weakness
David Landau24 May 2011
I was reluctant to see "The Conspirator" because it has racked up a critical consensus of a kind I dislike: the film is said to be cold-hearted, and to make political points with a heavy hand. Neither of these, happily, turns out to be true. The film is utterly impassioned, and its interest for today is nicely noted without being too underlined. Nearly every element one wants in a great film is there: visual beauty, strong acting, fine pacing, stirring and well-made music. But there is a flaw. The creators have taken their creation too seriously. There's not a shaft of levity or humor anywhere. A requirement for great art is thereby missed. It doesn't matter how somber the subject is supposed to be. King Lear has his fool; even Wagner's ultra-dark Ring cycle has its powerful currents of humor. It's got to be there; otherwise, the whole organism suffers. I think this is the weakness to which reviewers have responded, even if none of them has precisely named it. On that ground, the film falls short of greatness; but in every other respect it approaches or achieves greatness. "The Conspirator" is hugely recommendable and I will certainly see it again.
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Saw it twice. Really enjoyed it.
emilypearlhall20 April 2011
I saw this movie twice with two different friends who wanted to go. I thought it was great the first time and even better the second. The second time I watched from the perspective of believing Mary was guilty and was surprised that I enjoyed it even more that time. Robin Wright and James McAvoy do an amazing job in portraying real, complicated human beings. Kevin Kline seems villainous, but can also be read as a strong man in the grip of emotion and overwhelming responsibility. The cast is riveting, with breathtakingly well-done small and large parts. Couldn't take my eyes off Stephen Root and John Collum during their time on the screen. I enjoyed it and it got me thinking. There's real subtlety here -- art and history brought together.
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Amazing Story!
jennifer-21-8431386 April 2011
Saw the film for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and I must say that I thought it was Fantastic!! I couldn't believe that this was a true story, given that I had never heard of Mary Surrat or the trials that happened after the assassination of Lincoln. As far as performances go, James McAvoy and Robin Wright were outstanding. Robin brought such grace and poise to the role, I just wish she was on screen more!! I thought Redford did a great job transporting his audience back to one of the most pivotal moments in American history. Overall a great cinematic feat. Thank you "The Conspirator" for bringing such an interesting story to light!!
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Watching my family's history play out on screen..
magicjosh0924 April 2012
Before I start my review, let it be known that I am a direct relative of the Surratt family, I am a blood-relative of John, Anna & Mary Surratt. My name is Josh Surratt & this is the saddening tale of how innocence didn't mean a thing compared to revenge.

This is an extremely accurate portrayal of events in my family's history. What my great-great-great grandfather did was indeed a horrid act, leaving his mother to become the first woman in American history to be executed. While I do not denounce John from my family (especially considering, if he had not ran away & returned with the statue of limitations saving his life; I wouldn't be here today.

I found this to be some of the greatest performances in any film, James McAvoy places a near-perfect Fred Atkins & gives it his all in this film. Robin Wright also played a brilliant portrayal of my great-great- great-great grandmother Mary. The other performances were also great & seeing a few familiar faces such as Justin Long as Nick Baker, Aiken's close friend & a fellow veteran of the Civil War.

Overall this is an accurate, near-perfect film with very minimal & insignificant flaws. I rather enjoyed watching my family's history play out on screen. Give it a watch.
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The Law Goes Silent
bkoganbing20 August 2011
With the release of The Conspirator director Robert Redford hopes to be making more films like this which he says are historically accurate. At least by Redford's interpretation of historical events and the one he picked is still being picked over by many historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction period.

This film focuses on the trial and aftermath of the Lincoln assassination and most particularly on Mary Surratt at whose boardinghouse in Washington, DC, John Wilkes Booth and his curious band of conspirators met and plotted. One of those was Mary's son John who was the only one to escape apprehension.

The villain in the film is Secretary Of War Edwin M. Stanton played by Kevin Kline. It was not hard for him to do what he did, he certainly had public approval. The assassinated president Abe Lincoln had suspended the right of habeas corpus during the war, so this trial by military tribunal was not an unforeseeable step that Stanton would take. It is important to remember that at the time we actually were at war with Confederate Armies still in the field. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox five days before the assassination, but Joe Johnston was in the field and when it is announced that the last Confederate Armies have surrendered the day of the hanging, they are referring to Richard Taylor's troops in Texas.

James McAvoy is a young army veteran and lawyer who becomes Mary Surratt's lawyer. In the end he believes in her innocence, but the forces of vengeance are too much for him to overcome. And while Surratt might not have been as innocent as the film makes out, no case beyond reasonable doubt was proved at least by the rules of any civil trial that should have taken place.

The film really belongs to Robin Wright as the implacable and fatalistic Mary Surratt. She definitely merits some Oscar consideration next year. Up there on the screen she becomes everyone's mother and one wonders about Johnnie Simmons as John Surratt seen in flashback as to why he isn't coming to the plate on this.

Perhaps because even Stanton was afraid of public opinion if two Surratt women were in custody on trial for their lives daughter Anna Surratt played by Evan Rachel Wood was never charged. She must have had some knowledge of what was going on. One aspect of the story I think Redford missed and I'm surprised as he's an actor and matinée idol back in the day himself. John Wilkes Booth though his southern sympathies were well known though his plotting a secret, was the great matinée idol of his day. And he certainly attracted his fair share of what would be called groupies back in the day. I think he probably favored Anna Surratt and certainly John Surratt was glad to be included in his entourage. Put in those terms the relationship becomes clearer.

Still Redford has crafted a justly well received film and it will no doubt lead to talk about the rights of the accused of the worst kind of crimes.
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James McAvoy shines in otherwise standard fare.
Rockwell_Cronenberg3 August 2011
For almost a decade now, James McAvoy has been rising the ranks of the acting elite by giving reliable performances as varied as he is reliable. He's gone from a soldier trying to survive for his love to a bona-fide action star to a charismatic young man caught between two passionate, bickering lovers. Through it all, he has remained consistent and always managed to make a huge impression even when starring opposite big names like Forest Whitaker and Helen Mirren. Here in The Conspirator he takes on another role that wouldn't seem instantly appropriate for him, that of a Civil War-era lawyer and makes it entirely his own and manages to amaze. He brings his own unique charm and charisma to the role but never plays it too light; when the big dramatic court scenes come around he can hold his own against a strong veteran like Danny Huston. He's powerful, resilient and absolutely commands your attention. If anything, this film is even more proof that McAvoy is one of the finest actors of his generation.

The rest of the film, however, doesn't play with as much gusto as McAvoy's performance does. He stands as the lawyer for Mary Surratt, the lone female charged in the trial for those who conspired in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It's a story that I certainly was familiar with, but not fully aware of all the intricate details. As a piece of historical work, director Robert Redford and writer James D. Solomon play it out pretty well, giving us important facts and remaining historically accurate while still making it quite exciting at times. The scenes outside of the courtroom leave a bit to be desired and a lot of the supporting characters are pretty thin stereotypes for your usual courtroom drama, but overall this talented cast manages to keep you compelled throughout. McAvoy steals the show, but Robin Wright definitely impresses as Surratt, a woman who knows more than she lets on and Wright has some very excellent scenes later in the film. Evan Rachel Wood also manages to shine in a few scenes as Surratt's daughter who has to suffer the sight of watching her mother stand trial for this horrible crime.

For the most part it's pretty standard fare, but it does it all in a pretty skilled way. Nothing manages to impress too much, aside from McAvoy, but there aren't any major detractors either. I suppose my one big complaint comes in the form of Redford himself. The men conducting the trial and prosecuting Surratt are definitely men who are more out for revenge than they are legitimate justice. They are out to bend the rules in their favor to get the result what they want. Redford, however, makes them too villainous to the point of making it hard to believe them as actual people. These people existed and were real human beings, but Redford turns them more into caricature villains out to hang an innocent woman. Within the film it definitely makes you frustrated along with McAvoy's character and it makes you emotional and angry, but it's all a little heavy-handed. Aside from that though there isn't too much going against the film, but there also isn't a lot to make it anything worthy of a large amount of praise. It does it's job well, but it's job is relatively standard.
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An indictment of military trials, then and now
rmanory15 May 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I enjoyed the history lesson offered in this movie. After reading some of the reviews here however, I am not so sure that the history lesson was accurate, but I think that the trial itself is accurately described. For people who are not that familiar with all the issues surrounding Lincoln's assassination, it was unclear who were the other people killed in the event. The central issue in the movie is the style of the trial. Had it been an ordinary, not military, trial the ending would have been different for Mary Surratt, and I believe Robert Redford is trying to convey a message in connection with the military trials of the prisoners held at Guantanamo.

The acting was excellent, the photography was unpleasant at times, but quite original, with everybody looking like they were filmed walking in a dusty area. However, the value of this film lies in its accuracy, if the story did not happen this way it would be very very disappointing.
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Oscars should go to McAvoy, Wright, Kline, and Redford!
Thomas15 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I just saw 'The Conspirator' in the theater, and as a huge history buff, I must say that I was quite impressed with this movie.

The movie begins in April 1865 with providing the viewer with a brief glimpse of life on the battlefield during the bloody American Civil War. President Lincoln is then assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

The federal government soon determines that Booth plotted his murderous campaign in the boardinghouse of Mary Surratt. One of Booth's co-conspirators is John Surratt, son of Mary. Since John cannot be found by the feds, his mother Mary is soon arrested as a Booth accomplice. Her young lawyer is a former Union soldier, Frederic Aiken. At first, Aiken is reluctant to defend Mary, but soon becomes determined to ensure she receives a fair trial.

Robin Wright is excellent as Mary Surratt. Her demeanor, dialect, and body language are all quite convincing and perfectly balanced.

James McAvoy is superb as the young lawyer, Frederic Aiken. His tenacious defense of a woman who is deemed a traitor by the federal government that staged a virtual kangaroo court is very moving and impressive. Mr. McAvoy's American dialect was absolutely flawless.

Veteran actor Kevin Kline once again demonstrates his impeccable acting skills in his role as the heavy handed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

In my view, Mary Surratt was a Southern woman of her time. I believe she hated the Union, as well as it's leader, Abraham Lincoln. However, I do not believe she was an assassin. On the contrary, Mary Surratt was most likely a victim of a government and a nation eager to seek rapid justice for the ruthless murder of America's greatest president.

I believe an Oscar should go to Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Kevin Kline, and Robert Redford. I highly recommend this excellent historical film.
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Robert Redford, quietly, makes another gem of a film.
PippinInOz28 May 2012
Warning: Spoilers
This is an excellent film in my estimation.

All of the acting is first class, there is no weak link letting the side down here. All the more remarkable when it is considered that many of the cast are speaking in accents not their own. I am not an North American, but familiar with the accents from numerous films, television programmes and to me, they were faultless. It would be unfair of me to pick any performance out for special mention, they are all perfect.

As a history film / television production / documentary nerd, this does what a retelling of history has the power to do when an intelligent film maker and scriptwriter join forces. It brings something new and moving to an event that you think you already know all about. For example, there can be few people out there who do not know about the assassination of President Lincoln. What really 'got' me at the beginning of the film was the genuine horror I felt watching this event unfold on the screen. The relaxed theatre goers, some sitting watching the production, some gathered in the bar area, clearly happy and enjoying a night out. No doubt with extra joy at the final cessation of the bloodshed of the Civil War.

What else it brings, is no less important in a film about the past. It has direct and powerful reverberations of our present. It was hard to watch the frustration of James McAvoy's character as it slowly dawns on him that 'revenge' and 'anger' does indeed either destroy or weaken the Law and Constitutional Rights of individuals. As the film reveals slowly, we are all diminished when the Rights of individuals are curtailed. I kept thinking about Guantanamo Bay and the slow erosion of individual freedom post September 11th. In this way, regardless of your point of view, the film is very much a meditation on the past and the wars and trials of the past ten or so years.

The sheer brutality of the death penalty is brought home to the viewer, every bit as poignantly as the brutal murder of President Lincoln. It begs questions.

When the final bits of information come up on the screen, the fact that John Surat, tried in a Civil Court (not Military like his mother, Mary) after the initial shock of the President's murder is over, is released after there not being 'sufficient evidence' - it says so much about the danger to individuals when passions are high and people are baying for revenge, rather than justice.

If you enjoy a well acted, thought provoking film, I highly recommend it.
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A Deeper Exploration of a Famous American Conspiracy
gradyharp17 August 2011
THE CONSPIRATOR may have had difficulty at the box office because of the controversy over the use of military tribunals that rings across the media today. But this film, based on fact but altered somewhat for cinematic purposes, deals with probably the first misuse of a military tribunal - the infamous trial of the assassinators of President Abraham Lincoln by a conspiracy of citizens, most especially the non-military affiliated Mary Surratt. James Solomon wrote the story and co-scripted the screenplay with Gregory Bernstein. The director is Robert Redford who manages to give the entire film the feeling of mid-19th century aura - visually and politically - and suggests there is little difference between the approach and consequences of that time and the current management of 'anti-government' prisoners.

The film opens with some scenes from the Civil War battlefield where we meet the severely wounded soldier Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) attempting to save the life of his buddy Nicholas Baker (Justin Long). The film then jumps to the end of the war when the Confederate generals have surrendered to the Union generals and parties are underway. Aiken and Baker have survived and Aiken has decided to pursue law. The President is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth and in the aftermath Booth is killed but it is discovered that there was a plot to kill Lincoln as well vice president Andrew Johnson (Dennis Clark) and secretary of state (Kevin Kline). The response of the nation is terror and the suspects of the conspiracy are arrested and set for trial. The conspirators had been meeting in the boarding house of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) so the military decides she must also be a conspirator and tried with the others 'to put this madness to an end.' The men in charge of the tribunal include Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) and David Hunter (Colm Meaney). There is one lawyer, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) who feels that the tribunal is not an acceptable manner in which to try a citizen and assigns the fresh new lawyer Frederick Aiken to defend Mary Surratt. At first Aiken hates his role but as time passes and he gets to know Mary Surratt he is convinced of her innocence and implores Mary (and Mary's daughter Anna - Evan Rachel Wood) to reveal the location of the true problem in their family - Mary's son John (Johnny Simmons). The story features the change of approach of Aiken and the abuse of justice at the trial and the film ends with some very poignant lessons not only about our history but also about our present.

The pacing of the film is slow at times, but the cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel and the musical score my Mark Isham keep the film involving. James McAvoy offers a sterling performance and the rest of the cast is impressive. THE CONSPIRATOR is a healthy dip into our nation's past and makes us more alert to our nation's present.

Grady Harp
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Historically Inaccurate but causes you to ask questions
remo_93415 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I find it quite uncanny to be sitting alone in a dark theater at midnight watching the first viewing of a film about the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln on the very night that he was assassinated.

Yes, you read that correctly. I was alone and had the theater to myself. There was nobody else. The night was Thursday April 14, 2011, exactly 146 years after the president was shot by John Wilkes Booth.

Shortly after ten o'clock on the night of April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was fatally shot at Ford's Theatre while watching the play Our American Cousin. He was taken across the street to William Petersen's boardinghouse where he died at 7:22 a.m. the next morning. An attempt was made on the life of Secretary of State William H. Seward at the same time. It was later revealed that Vice President Andrew Johnson and General Ulysses Grant were also candidates for assassination. After a trial by a military commission, conspirators George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell, David Herold and Mary Surratt were hanged on July 7, 1865. Of course you knew that. It's in the history books.

The film The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford and produced by the American Film Company, is about the trial and hanging of Mary Surratt as viewed through the eyes of her attorney, Frederick Aiken. It opens with the assassination attempts and ends with the hanging, just like the story in the history books.

It's the stuff between those scenes that concerns me.

First, the positives. The Civil War reenactors used did an above average job, compared to some other films like Gettysburg, God's and Generals, Glory and Cold Mountain where the services of reenactors were utilized, but sometimes are mis-directed. Because this is not a film about a specific battle, reenactors were used as extras and performed wonderfully.

The cinematography was excellent. Even though the actual trial took place in Washington, D.C. in a courtroom constructed on the third floor of the Washington Arsenal, the film was shot at Savannah, Georgia. The reconstructed Arsenal gives you the feeling of actually being there. The courtroom layout was accurate, based upon the descriptions of those who were there and the sketches in Harper's Weekly.

The casting was excellent. Robin Wright gave a stellar performance as Mary Surratt. Kevin Kline surprised me. It wasn't until they flashed the credits that I realized that he portrayed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. It was a fabulous performance. Evan Rachel Wood (Anna Surratt) and Johnny Simmons (John H. Surratt Jr.) gave great performances which made me feel as if I was actually watching the events unfold inside the Surratt boardinghouse. The casting of the remaining conspirators and major characters was well done – except Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth). Kebbell did the best he could, so this is not a criticism of him. It's in his looks. The other actors each had a strong likeness to their respective character. Kebbell seemed to be mis-placed. I give Avy Kaufman high marks for her abilities as a casting director.

Now for my criticism.

It wasn't accurate. Even with the Dr. James McPherson as a historical consultant, there were so many inaccuracies that I could drive a Mack Truck through the holes in this film giving it the appearance of Robert Redford's attempt at revisionist history. He tries hard to assert the innocence of Mrs. Surratt and make Secretary of War Stanton to be the bad guy. He ignores a lot of historical detail, including the fact that Surratt rarely uncovered her face. When her daughter, Anna, took the stand, a key moment in the film, it has been recorded by numerous sources at that time that Surratt sobbed while holding a white handkerchief to her veiled face.

Right after her arrest, Surratt was thrown into the same cell at the Arsenal that she remained in for the duration, according to the film. Historically, she was brought to the Old Capitol Prison for thirteen days before getting moved to the Arsenal. Furthermore, her feet were not bound by iron manacles, as the film suggests on a few occasions.

Lastly, regarding the legality of the trial, which is where Redford spends the most of his effort, it was a point repeatedly brought up by Senator Reverdy Johnson, her lead attorney. This is historically accurate, but there were more witnesses and questioning from other defense attorney's which would have given us a more accurate picture of the trial.

The most accurate point of the film was the hanging. The gallows looked real and felt real. Other than mounds of dirt near the coffins looking a little "too clean" (again, looking for historical accuracy here), it felt like I was watching the hanging of the conspirators.

Overall, I give this movie five of ten dollars signs ($$$$$) because of the great job in casting and cinematography. It gives you a feel that you are in an 1865 trial. Unfortunately, as somebody who has studied the Civil War for nearly two decades, I find that there are too many historical inaccuracies to overlook.

Should you see this movie? It depends. If you are looking for accuracy, no. If you are looking for what it might have looked like, yes. If you are looking just for pure entertainment, it will probably bore you.

I would recommend reading Michael W. Kauffman's American Brutus AND Kate Clifford Larson's The Assassin's Accomplice before watching this film.
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A Whitewash of Mary Surratt
cklarson-116 April 2011
Adding to another reviewer's comments about key elements being left out of the movie "trial" of Surratt, besides being a Catholic slaveholder (the Catholic Church held slaves in Maryland), Surratt's tavern in Surrattsville was a rendez-vous for Confederate couriers smuggling intelligence and contraband back and forth between VA and MD and the family had previously been under investigation. For a good account of these details see Surratt's biography on Wikipedia and the recent book Manhunt, on the search for Booth and the other assassins. Also to clarify some legal points, historically the Supreme Court has deferred to the military in judging military necessity, that is measures that need to be taken to overcome a belligerent enemy force. Having researched and written on this issue in my biography of Anna Ella Carroll, Lincoln's legal adviser, to my mind the fact that, as I remember, at least 2 of the assassin conspirators were former Confederate soldiers and that the nation's commander-in-chief was assassinated, provides sufficient grounds for a military commission trial. The 1942 Supreme Court Quirin decision on the German saboteurs upheld the military's right to try belligerent US citizens. Further, especially in Missouri, thousands of military commission trials tried guerrillas while civil courts still functioned. The defining criteria, as Anna Ella Carroll wrote in her war powers pamphlets is the connection of defendants to the armed forces of the rebellion. For instance, spies are always considered war criminals because they operate in conjunction with armed forces and behind lines, out of uniform. Writs of habeas corpus are also suspended for reasons of military necessity. For instance John Merryman was a MD insurrectionist in April 1861 and arrested by federal troops for his role in trying to obstruct movement of US troops to the capital to protect it. Chief Justice Roger Taney issued a writ of habeas corpus to bring him to a civil court to be charged. The commanding officer holding Merryman refused to recognize the writ citing contrary orders from the president of the United States. Also see Wikipedia about Surratt's trial results.

To my mind this is another one of the Hollywood "pro-Confederate" movies that have been prevalent since the 1940s, featuring former Confederates as poor abused souls, by those bad Yankees. Let us remember Southern slaveowners were the experts at abusing people and civil liberties in the Confederacy were severally abused.

Finally, why don't Hollywood producers produce films about Union women heroines, like Anna Ella Carroll, Mary Louvestre, Mary Bickerdyke, and Elizabeth Van Lew who lived, rather than a traitor who upheld a cause that upheld slavery at its base.
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Well constructed piece that wasn't trying to be about Lincoln or to re-try the Surratts
bikefolder3216 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
This movie wasn't intended to be a comprehensive re-telling of Lincoln's assassination or to depict the guilt or innocence of Mary Surratt - people who have given lowered reviews because of this weren't paying attention.

Beautifully acted, very understated performances give the impression you're watching a documentary. But make no mistake, you won't leave the theater with a clear idea of whether Mary or her son were rightly or wrongly accused. What is made clear in this movie is the confusion that immediately followed Lincoln's assassination and the paranoia that still hung in the air in the fragile time between the end of the military conflict and the beginning of Reconstruction. Aiken's character is never 100% convinced of Mary's guilt or innocence - his fight is about the Constitution, and how the Secretary of War was so determined to move on, it didn't matter that rights were being trampled on in order to do so.

There isn't a catchy score to move things along as you'd expect from typical period films. The scenery becomes its own character, very sobering expanses of post-war Washington and the fort where Mary was held - they match the less-than-cheerful mood of the time.

As for the accuracy of the several events depicted to form the backdrop of the larger story - all done well. Down to the small but important details of Lincoln being carried to the hotel across from the theater and having to be placed diagonally in his bed because he was too tall to fit a standard bed frame. Again - people expecting to see a comprehensive detail-by-detail re-telling of the assassination or of Mary Surratt's life were looking at the wrong movie.

A good depiction of the mindset of the American people as Reconstruction was gearing up, and a story that isn't commonly told, but nonetheless a part of history.
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Short on Historical Accuracy
darred2917 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Unfortunately, I missed the first ten minutes, so I can't speak for that. But as an amateur Lincoln Assassination historian, I knew that I couldn't miss "The Conspirator". I assumed that there would be historical inaccuracies and the whole question of whether or not Mary Surratt was involved would be a matter of debate, as it has been for the past 146 years.

But I didn't expect so many.

Any movie (or book, for that matter) about the Lincoln assassination which does not draw information from Michael Kaufman and/or Laurie Verge should be considered lacking. Mrs. Surratt was told of her execution the night prior to it (July 17, 1865), and had clerical counsel the night through. She very rarely lifted her veil in the courtroom, mostly just to be identified, and during the trial was moved to a better cell just off of the courtroom. There is no record of her having to wear either the manacles or the ball & chain shown.

As for the others, Fredrick Aiken is a composite of two attorneys under Reverdy Johnson. Lewis Powell/Paine/Payne was considered almost a giant; tall, muscular, and Booth's "killing machine", not the wimpy guy shown in the movie. And the prisoners pounding their chains during the one scene? They knew that could have gotten them shot right then and there - it simply didn't happen (and yet the audience cheered at the theater - how sad).

The acting was superb, despite the script, and the use of locations really helped people understand what Washington DC looked like at the time of the Civil War. If someone is looking for a movie concerning the Civil War, and doesn't really care about what really happened, this is their movie. One doesn't have to know a lot about the assassination to know that too many scenes are just inaccurate. But yes, the acting deserves a few stars.
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Amazing historic omissions
lgay-21-13430116 April 2011
If you like histories of the Civil War and the Lincoln assassination that ignore the whole issue of slavery, this is your movie. You would not know it from this movie, but Mrs. Surratt was not just a boarding house owner, but also owned a slave plantation in suburban Washington, and grew up in a slave plantation that provided the money for her education at a Catholic school in Alexandria, Va. She was a supporter of the slave-owning culture and ardent opponent of Lincoln's policies which undermined her economic future and position in local society. This is not a casual omission in the script because it writes out one of the key aspects of her trial. Even Aiken in his memoirs stresses her slaveholding background as explanation for her conviction. Regardless of whether you think she was really guilty or not, a complete picture of the key elements involved in the trial.
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not exactly a great movie - but good time to spend
Muhannad Kalaji13 April 2012
i voted 8 for this one not because its a great movie or very good even, but its a decent good one, something we haven't seen for quite a while and it is a good change away from all those visual and sound effects. computers and animation and all the complication that hardly we see a movie these days that has non, however i guess this one has non... surprisingly !

the costumes were really distinctive and quite a work i say, lighting was also one of features for sure,

iv'e always admired Robert Redford but he really needs to stop coloring his hair, how old is he anyway now some where in his seventies !

the historical honesty in this movie is something to respect really, iv'e always admired true stories... always managed to be stranger than fiction ,

anyway its a good time away from all that Hollywood rubbish that we see in theaters these days, i totally recommend this for those who love a good drama and some find acting

Muhannad Kalaji
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Some odd casting choices and a midsection slump mar an otherwise compelling and entirely relevant courtroom thriller
Likes_Ninjas9019 July 2011
Warning: Spoilers
The Conspirator follows the aftermath of assassination of Abraham Lincoln, as eight people are put on trial to be charged with the murder. One of the suspects is Mary Surratt (Robyn Wright), who admits that she boarded John Wilkes Booth in her home, where he and his men may have been planning the assassination. Her son John (Johnny Simmons) is also somehow involved with the conspiracy too but he managed to escape before he could be captured. Aiding Mary's case is Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). He does not believe that she should be left as the fall person that the court is making her out to be. Pulling the strings of the court is Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), a politician who is intent on using the case to manipulate both the North and the South. Johnson hires Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) a Civil War veteran and lawyer who has returned home to his wife Sarah (Alexis Bledel) and is initially reluctant to take on the case, assuming Mary is already guilty. But facing off against his opposite attorney Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), Aiken realises the increasing necessity of bringing John into the trial to prove Mary's innocence. He contacts Mary's daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) for help.

Some odd casting choices and a midsection slump mar an otherwise compelling and entirely relevant courtroom thriller. Director Robert Redford has chosen an untold aspect of the Lincoln assassination, certainly one I was not familiar with. Though it may seem like a distinctly American story, the film holds a universal power that almost anyone could respond to. Redford's timing is precise. He's made a thriller that's not much interested in the 'whodunit' but the moral ambiguity surrounding courtroom show trials. Early in the film, Johnson argues that Mary has been held extensively without conviction so that the court could arrange its case, predetermining her fate. In trying to justify the court's outlandish decisions like this Holt's says to Aiken, "in times of war the law falls silent". He fires back "It shouldn't". And the court scenes are intercut with Stanton justifying the sentencing as a fear campaign that will satisfy the North's vengeance and scare the South. The story is complex, not because of whether Mary is guilty or not, it's never been discovered whether she really did conspire with Booth, but because of the reluctance of the American court system to give Surratt a fair trial. All historical films must find a contemporary relevancy and there's a powerful, universal subtext here about the way governments confuse vengeance and justice. It's impossible not to look at this film and think of the way that both the US and Australian governments have responded to terrorism in recent years, through mistreatment of political prisoners and terrorism laws preventing basic human rights, without proper justification.

As a piece of entertainment The Conspirator is a competently made thriller too. It's been beautifully photographed by Redford and his cinematographer Newtown Thomas Sigel. The detail around the sets and the costumes and the muted colour scheme are impeccable. The night scenes are particularly handsome, decorated by shadows and lit by the burning wicks of candles. But some of this authenticity is undone by some peculiar casting choices. Casting British actors in a distinctly American period is at first very distracting. Tom Wilkinson is fine with what he does but a less recognisable American actor would have been more immersive. McAvoy seems like an odd choice too but he shows his class and maturity as an actor. He's passionate and charismatic in this film as a man who is understandably skeptical about a Southerner but gradually builds to a determined, if futile, cause. Robyn Wright and Evan Rachel Wood bring great emotion to their work as Southerners realising, rather ironically, the difficulty of sacrificing one person, like John, for the greater good. Disappointingly, Justin Long is miscast and completely out of place with a fake moustache and Alexis Bledel can only do so much with an unresolved subplot about Aiken's home life. The pace of the film also sags around the midpoint, as the finer and details of the case become muddy. But the surprising and moving climax ensures that an appropriate amount of feeling and emotion is restored into many of these characters.
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