Robert Redford’s direction is that good.
We begin on a field of battle during the Civil War. A Yankee captain, Frederick
Aiken (James McAvoy), is lying on the ground, aching from a gut shot, but he doesn’t
seem as worried about that as he is about making sure his badly wounded buddy
beside him doesn’t fade into oblivion. When the stretcher bearers finally arrive, he
insists they take his friend first, even though they try to tell him that it’s too late for
Fast-forward a couple of years, to the end of the war. Captain Aiken has fully
recovered from his battle wound and is now attached to the adjutant general’s office.
He’s learning the practice of law while still in uniform, and so looks forward to going
home and establishing his law practice as a civilian when the war finally ends. But
just after the armistice is declared, President Lincoln is shot. His murderer, John
Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell), manages to escape, for a time, until he is hunted down
and killed. Several of his co-conspirators, however, are immediately captured, and
since it turned out they held their meetings in a local boarding house, the proprietress
of the boarding house, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), is also arrested and charged with
the same crime of treason. It is Captain Aiken’s unwelcome job to defend her.
First he tries to refuse the assignment, but his superior officer won’t let him. (The
officer doesn’t want the case either, and is happy to delegate it to a subordinate.) At
first, Captain Aiken is downright hostile to his imprisoned client, then merely rude,
and only after halfheartedly attempting an objective investigation does he become
convinced that she, in fact, is innocent. But the highly-charged political climate makes
it nearly impossible to convince anyone else of that. The outraged populace wants
revenge. And their pound of flesh they shall have.
Robin Wright plays a complex conspirator. While in solitary confinement, she
alternately prays, fasts and refuses to speak to the guards. She will claim she doesn’t
know anything, and Mr. Booth was merely another paying customer, but then it
comes to light that her son was one of his confidants, and she clams up again. Mr.
Aiken strongly suspects that she knows more than she’s telling, though he still doesn’t
believe her to be guilty of conspiring in the assassination plot. All his friends think
he’s nuts to try so hard and care so much, but he can’t help himself. Just as when he
lay wounded on that battlefield, he feels he’s doing the right thing by trying to help
It’s easy to find out what happened before watching the film, but if you’re unfamiliar
with the actual military tribunal and its outcome, I recommend that you let the movie
unfold the events for you. It tells the story in a compelling way, even though there’s a
lot of messing around with light and shadow angles. It’s still riveting. And the formal
costumes and stilted language and stuffy decorum are such that you’ll feel that you
were there in the courtroom yourself.
“The Conspirator” is not a lighthearted comedy, and it doesn’t bother with romance.
It’s not exactly the History Channel, but it is based on historical facts. You’ll just
have to make up your own mind about the justice of the verdict.
Ronald P. Salfen is co-pastor of United Presbyterian Church, Greenville, Texas.