After John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on a Good Friday, April 15, 1865, the search was on for the Southern sympathizers who not only planned his murder but also attempts on the lives of Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward.
Among those arrested and placed on trial is Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a widow at whose boarding house the conspirators hatched their dastardly plot. Maryland’s Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) recruits idealistic attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a former Union Army captain and Civil War hero, to defend her. Reluctant at first, Aiken gradually becomes convinced of Mary’s innocence, particularly after getting to know her daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) and learning about the treachery of her Confederate courier son John (Johnny Simmons).
But the deck is stacked against Mary at Washington’s Fort McNair in a military tribunal where the concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is not the case. In the political climate of post-Civil War Washington, individual rights were subverted by ‘national security.’ Quoting Cicero, someone notes: “In times of war, the law falls silent.” What’s particularly relevant and timely is that Obama’s administration has reversed its earlier position, deciding that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four others will be tried by a military tribunal at Guantanamo for their alleged participation in the Sept. 11th World Trade Center attack.
Working from James Solomon’s exhaustively researched, yet heavily verbose script, visually astute director Robert Redford does his best to inject suspense and create an emotional arc for the primary characters in what is, essentially, a historical reconstruction of an adversarial melodrama. Utilizing numerous flashbacks, deftly edited by Craig McKay, the plot unfolds slowly, very slowly, despite persuasive performances from the entire cast, including Kevin Kline, Danny Huston and Justin Long.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Conspirator” is a convoluted, courtroom-centric 6. It’s the first in a roster of historically accurate films produced by The American Film Company, headed by Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs.