If we are to believe the premise of Robert Redford’s new film, “The Conspirator,” the quest for revenge when blinded by hate can eradicate the truth. Was the trial of Mary Surratt, the lone woman charged in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, a quest for justice or a horrible scam?
Surratt (Robin Wright), the owner of a Washington boarding house, was presumed guilty and tried as a civilian by a military tribunal. Both factors were a violation of her constitutional rights, but the climate of our country was in a state of chaos. Robert E. Lee’s army had surrendered just five days prior to the assassination, and the level of fear was at an all-time high.
Surratt’s son, John, had been cavorting with John Wilkes Booth for months and suddenly disappeared two weeks before Lincoln was shot. The United States government believed that if his mother’s life were in jeopardy, John Surratt would surrender to authorities. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union soldier, is unwillingly put upon to defend Surratt, believing his comrades would consider him disloyal. He soon discovers she could actually be innocent.
Redford assembles a bevy of brilliant actors who carry the sometimes slowly paced plot to greatness. Kevin Kline is sublime as the somewhat slimy Secretary of War Edward Stanton. Tom Wilkinson as Sen. Reverdy Johnson is perfect (as always) portraying the outraged defense attorney who turns the case over to Aiken. McAvoy, in his best performance ever, really nabs the ambiguity of his character’s dilemma. Wright’s stoic and staid Surratt, the mother who will sacrifice her life for that of her son’s, is beyond gripping.
Redford hasn’t lost his masterful eye or voice behind the camera. His films are as beautiful to watch as they are mentally stimulating. In “The Conspirator,” he tackles the philosophical issues of determining guilt. He maintains that our Constitution must always be obeyed and defended no matter what the circumstances. It’s a resounding message, not to be taken lightly.
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