Robert Redford's The Conspirator is a political historical drama that has many parallels to modern times. He takes the true story of Mary Surratt, accused of conspiring to kill Abraham Lincoln, and uses it as a commentary on the post 9/11 craze.
Mary Surratt is accused of conspiring to kill Abraham Lincoln and, instead of taking a constitutional approach, the government wants swift recourse and immediate action to appease the nation. It seems, by pointing this out on many occasions throughout the film, Redford is deliberately making a parallel to the swift action taken after the 9/11 attacks. In this case, instead of the panic ensuing after the bombing of the twin towers, it's panic after Lincoln is murdered.
Redford seems to be questioning how much of the panic was actually a result of citizen concern and how much was as a result of government influence.
The film opens with the famous murder of President Lincoln by the actor John Wilkes Booth. U.S Secretary of War Edwin Stanton takes action immediately trying to round up all the men that could possibly have been involved in Booth's plan.
He seems to be taking anyone, including Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the boarding house owner, whose son was involved with Booth He offered up her boarding out as a meeting place to plan the murders. But did Mary Surratt know about the plan? It seems throughout the entire film, she is considered guilty even before any evidence is presented. Civil War hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) who is enlisted to defend Mary, soon discovers that her chances of getting off are very slim, as the government wants all of the conspirators - guilty or not - hanged and forgotten.
Aiken realizes how unfair the whole proceedings are and tries everything he can to get her a fair trial, but the government is very powerful and one man is not enough to fight the powers that be.
The political commentary throughout the film is thought provoking and interesting. The way Redford lays everything out, you really feel for this woman and what she is going through. From beginning to end, you are made to feel that this women is being dealt an awful fate.
James McAvoy and Robin Wright produce great performances that evoke an emotional response from the audience. Wright plays the part as a women without much options and is simply accepting her fate. McAvoy plays a Aiken who goes through a great crisis of conscience that drastically changes from the beginning of the film to the end. You can sympathize with his character and understand where he is coming from at every point in the film, which is a credit to McAvoy's acting.
Although the movie is interesting from start to finish, it drags in a few areas. If you are looking for something intriguing and suspenseful, you're not going to find it with this movie, but if you are looking for a political film that will make you really think, this one is for you.
The film offers flashbacks throughout the court proceedings in an attempt to visualize the events being discussed. Rather than offer any great insight, it just comes across confusing and disjointed - are those flashbacks what really happened or simply what the lawyers are arguing at the time? We assume it's what really happened, but that's only if you believe Mary Surratt is telling the truth. The scenes are meant to help explain, but they really just make the more than 2 hour film seem quite long.
Overall, The Conspirator is an ambitious film that is much more than what is presented on screen and it succeeds in asking deeper questions about modern day issues. But can we learn from the past?