The Conspirator – Review


Strong legal thriller that doesn’t quite hit the highest levels

The trial of Mary Surrat and the conspirators who assassinated Abraham Lincoln had repercussions that persist to this day. Ex parte Milligan established the legal precedent that military tribunals couldn’t be used to try civilians if civilian courts were still in operation. It was established because Surrat and the conspirators behind Lincoln’s assassination, the men who helped set up John Wilkes Booth the fateful night at the theatre, were all tried (and hung) by a military tribunal in the aftermath of Lincoln’s death. The Conspirator is a look at Mary’s trial through the eyes of the attorney assigned to defend her.

Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is a former Union officer and attorney charged with defending Surrat (Robin Wright) in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination. Mentored by a Senator (Tom Wilkinson), Aiken is charged with giving her a defense when even he believes her guilt beyond any reasonable measure. As he constructs the events of the conspiracy, Aiken comes to believe in her innocence and tries to spare her the hangman’s noose. In the process he makes a compelling argument that she was a victim of her son John (Johnny Simmons), whom the government is still searching for and may be trying his mother to get him to come out of hiding.

The interesting thing that Robert Redford (who steps behind the camera for this film) does is turn this into more of a legal thriller as opposed to a dramatic piece. This is a film concerned with law, and the precedents the trial would later set, and it treats it quite well. There’s a sense of order he brings to the proceedings. It has a healthier respect for the law and the courts in terms of a factual presentation than most Hollywood legal thrillers do; this isn’t about the pomp and circumstance but of the law. It’s rather refreshing in that regards. But Redford does more than just present a good trial; he presents a terrific character arc for his main character.

As Aiken proceeds at first we see him give a spirited defense of Surrat not because he believes in her but because it’s his duty as an attorney. He knows he’s being handed the case because he is inexperienced, even if no one will tell him explicitly, and that military powers that be want this wrapped up quickly. But as he delves in, slowly but surely Aiken comes to realize the potential innocence of his client. This is a man who is never really convinced of her guilt but believes that at a minimum she ought to have a day in court in front of her peers as opposed to the military putting on a show so they can legally hang her and the rest.

It doesn’t hurt that James McAvoy delivers a terrific performance. He’s always had good dramatic chops and Redford gets a strong performance out of him. McAvoy has to carry the film in a tried and true character arc for an attorney in cinema, going from one end of the spectrum to the other in dealing with his client’s guilt, and does so convincingly. It’s a good performance but it’s not great. It’s kind of a summation of the film as a whole.

It’s an interesting exercise for Redford, who normally handles dramatic material, but it never crosses that point from being good to being great. He gets good performances out of the rest of his cast, as a good story and wraps it up neatly. But it’s not brilliant by any means. It never hits the really high notes and one wonders if Redford has that gear in him as a director after Ordinary People and Quiz Show. The Conspirator remains, then, a good but not great film.

Director: Robert Redford
Notable Cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Colm Meaney, Johnny Simmons, Evan Rachel Wood, Justin Long, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Toby Kebbell
James D. Solomon

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