The Conspirator (2011)

Directed by Robert Redford
Written by James Solomon

When TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts decided to start the American Film Company he had one goal in mind: produce fun, entertaining, and most importantly historically accurate, films based on seminal events from American history. The company’s first project is The Conspirator, the story of Mary Suratt, a woman accused of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. The company, which hired historians to check its screenplays for historical accuracy, hired Hollywood legend Robert Redford to direct. Redford is best known for his roles in front of the camera in such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, but he is also an Academy Award nominated director for both Quiz Show and Ordinary People.

The Conspiratoris not nearly as exciting or thrilling as the title may insinuate. In fact, the film is a courtroom drama, pitting the young and, at the beginning, unwilling, attorney Fred Aiken (James McAvoy) against the clearly biased and revenge seeking military commission trying the case of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright Penn), who is accused of conspiring not only in the assassination of the Lincoln, but also the attempts on Vice President Andrew Johnson’s and Secretary of State William Seward’s lives as well.

At its core, the film attempts to examine the ideas of freedom and human rights while surrounding it with the interesting story of a Southern woman who ran a boarding house in Washington, D.C. where John Wilkes Booth and his gang of conspirators met to plan the assassination. Redford, or better James McAvoy in the lead role, does a great job of expressing the sentiment of the Constitution and everything for which it stands. The blood thirsty Yankees, seeking revenge on Surratt’s son John, the only conspirator to escape, were blinded by the opportunity to get their woman in Surratt, but Aiken, more and more convinced of his client’s innocence, made sure she was afforded the same opportunity as any American citizen.

The performances from the ensemble cast, which also includes Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Root, Evan Rachel Wood and Justin Long, are solid across the board, but McAvoy and Wright Penn carry the proceedings. It cannot be assured that everything in the film is historically accurate, but it does its best job and that is certainly commendable. In addition, the art design, including the costumes and sets, was great, transporting the viewer back to 1865 in convincing fashion.

As the founding belief of the American Film Company suggests, real life is often more compelling than fiction. And in the case of The Conspirator the filmmakers are able to take the true story of Mary Surratt and Fred Aiken and make an entertaining courtroom drama that is reminiscent of the John Grisham fiction story A Time to Kill, which also features a young lawyer defending the evil man who is most assuredly guilty. The film is not flashy, it is not bombastic, but it is real and compelling enough for its 2 hour runtime.

Joe Ricketts’ noble quest is off to a noble beginning with The Conspirator, which features a solid offering from everyone involved. If anything might hinder the film it may be that too much time is spent in the courtroom, observing talking heads. The American Film Company’s next projects include a film about John Brown’s famous raid on Harpers Ferry and Paul Revere’s famous Midnight Ride. Both are currently in development.

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