Robert Redford’s Civil War court drama “The Conspirator” has a unique distinction. Although it deals with a true event from history, it maintains suspense about the outcome to the very end — with a kick to the stomach. In exploring a mystery of history, it ends up illuminating both the past and present.
The Lincoln assassination is among the most universally recognized chapters of American history, but the chaotic aftermath remains in the domain of scholars. It is a pity because, as “The Conspirator” proves, the legal and political power crises stemming from what followed the events in Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, have vital relevance to today.
Redford is careful not to preach or be obvious, but it’s clear that the film serves as an illustration of how the politicization of fear and the morass of conspiracy theories after John Wilkes Booth’s act foreshadow post-9/11 days and years and uses and misuses of the nation’s security considerations.
The parallel even is stronger, taking into account last week’s coincidental headlines about a decision to use military courts in Guantánamo Bay detention center just when “The Conspirator,” which chronicles improper handling of the Lincoln case by a government-pressured military court, is being released.
The movie is about the trial of people accused of assisting Booth, including Mary Surratt (Robin Wright, in a career-best performance), the mother of one of Booth’s supporters, who escaped after the assassination. As long as he is not found, Surratt’s case seems preordained on circumstantial evidence.
Outside the court, but important in its impact on the deliberations and verdict, is a desperate struggle between Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), who wants to restore order, no matter the price, and a decorated Union officer (James McAvoy), who reluctantly acts as Surratt’s attorney, hell-bent in his search for the truth.
Neither a soap opera nor a propaganda vehicle, “The Conspirator” is an exciting, gripping movie, believably authentic and with an excellent cast. McAvoy and Wright show how to give star performances without the trappings of stardom; both take the hard and true road to portraying complex characters.
Starring Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood
Written by James D. Solomon
Directed by Robert Redford
Running time 2 hours 3 minutes