Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars
I’ve always been somewhat of a history buff. In the early 70s I studied up on the assassinations of President Lincoln and President Kennedy. There used to be a fact sheet you could find that compared the two. Things like “Lincoln was shot in a theatre, his assassin was found in a warehouse (actually a barn) while Kennedy was shot from a warehouse and his assassin was found in a theatre.” Or “Lincoln’s secretary was named Kennedy; Kennedy’s secretary was named Lincoln.” But even I was surprised by the story director Robert Redford uncovered in his new film “The Conspirator.”
April 14, 1865. Enjoying a night out with his wife, President Abraham Lincoln takes in a showing of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater. As John Wilkes Booth makes his way to the presidential box other men are planning attacks on the Vice President and the Secretary of State. Moments later, the president lay dying in a bed too small to hold his body while Secretary of State Seward was brutally stabbed in his home (he survived). The man sent to kill the Vice President chickened out, which is why Andrew Johnson became our 17th President (another fact, both Lincoln and Kennedy were succeeded by men named Johnson). Soon those responsible for the crimes are tracked down. Booth is killed but the others stand trial. One of the accused is boarding room renter Mary Surratt (Wright, in a very strong performance). Her son was good friends with Booth, which makes her guilty in the government’s eyes. But was she really a conspirator? Or, like Dr. Samuel Mudd, just in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Told with a strong eye toward history, “The Conspirator” is director Redford’s second trip back in time. He earned an Oscar nomination for his 1950’s themed “Quiz Show” and should be on the short list next year for this film. Not one to shy away from political themes (after all, he starred in “The Candidate,” “All the President’s Men” and “Lions for Lambs,” which he also directed), Redford can’t help but make us think about the times we live in now. In “The Conspirator” the accused are given a military trial, not a civilian one. They really have no rights even though they are, supposedly, presumed innocent until proven guilty. That the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, has made sure they will be proven guilty is of no consequence.
As in previous films, Redford has filled the cast with strong actors. Among them are McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, the attorney who is reluctantly assigned to defend Mary Surratt, Kline as Edwin Stanton and Tom Wilkinson as Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson. It is Johnson, a long time friend of Lincoln, who persuades Aiken to take the case, refusing to let the laws of the land be trampled by an overzealous tribunal. As stated above, Wright is terrific as Mary Surratt. Her face free of makeup and her jaw firmly set, Wright makes Mary a puzzle you have to keep adding pieces to. Did she know anything? And if so, what did she know and when did she know it? That you keep asking those questions up until the last minute of the film is a testament to Redford’s ability to tell a story and tell it well.