MOVIE: The Conspirator (2010)

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from this film, but I guess it was, at the very least, something a lot more “Hollywood” — take the trial of Mary Surratt, charged with aiding and abetting in the murder of President Abraham Lincoln, and turn it into, you know, a John Grisham flick.  Something mindless and fun.

And so, I was surprised to find myself incredibly bored about 30 minutes in.  Until I realized what was actually going on with this film.  Then things got a little more interesting, and a lot more thought-provoking.

My theory here, and director and ex-Boyfriend of the Week Robert Redford should feel free to debate this in the comments if he feels so moved (hi, Bob!), is that this movie was made — and made now — because the court case of Mary Surratt so plainly speaks to our post-9/11 political-legal world.

Mary Surratt, the mother of one of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators, 21 year-old John Surratt, ran a boarding house where many of the conspirators both lived and held “secret meetings” in the months leading up to the president’s assassination.  Though there was no evidence to support she knew what those meetings were about, let alone that she was actively participating in them, she was scooped up and tried with seven others not long after Lincoln’s death.

Assigned to defend her was young Capt. Aiken (James McAvoy, who bored me as much in this film as he does in most of his films — sorry, fans), a survivor and hero of the Civil War, who returned to his legal practice as soon as the war was over, despite job offers from the U.S. War Department Secretary, Edward Stanton (Kevin Kline).  A strong patriot, though a battle-weary one, he is initially furious about his assignment to defend Mary, believing her to be guilty.  Nevertheless, as the trial proceeds, he becomes increasingly more convinced of her innocence, and equally-increasingly more horrified by the way the proceedings are being handled by the government.

Mary, played here with pale-faced, sunken-eyed resignation by Robin Wright, is certain she will be found guilty, and for good reason.  The retribution-hungry government has decided to try each of the co-conspirators in a military tribunal, despite the fact they are civilians.  The  tribunal denies her the right to a jury of her peers, the ability to testify on her own behalf, and even the right of her defense council to demand full discovery of the evidence the prosecution has gathered against her.  An outraged, grieving country instead tries her based on unreliable testimony from unreliable “witnesses,” all clearly more interested in seeking revenge against this “enemy of the state” than in seeking justice.

Hmm, sound familiar?

In any case, though the story itself is fairly familiar (young lawyer’s naïve belief system challenged by complicated case) and also a bit on the slow-moving side , it’s a relevant, thoughtful one.  If you’re at all interested in the history, I think you’ll get a lot out of this film.  It doesn’t have the entertainment value that the usual Hollywood courtroom drama has — it’s got more of an “educational film” feel to it at times.  But once I realized what it was up to and let go of my expectations for mindless fun, I was even more entertained than I would’ve been otherwise, I think.  Such a surprise to go into a film thinking it’ll be kind of a throw-away and find instead a much more intriguing examination of the ways in which times don’t really seem to change.


[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Drama
Cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel, Justin Long, Danny Huston, Norman Reedus, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson


3 Responses to “MOVIE: The Conspirator (2010)”

  1. RogerBW Says:

    The feeling I got from this was two parts worthy historical educational zzz and one part WAKE UP SHEEPLE. Didn’t really work for me, therefore.

  2. Liz Says:

    I had heard about this movie, and then, of course, forgot about it. I have to hand it to you, Meg, for being able to adjust your expectations, and appreciate what the movie was trying to do. I think I would find it very interesting.

    The case of Mary Surrat remains a sore point among many CW reenactors. I thought the parallels you drew were very apt. Question: do you think some of that same thing happened after WWII – like at the Nuremburg Trials?

    I am very much afraid it’s happening now, too.

  3. Richard Harland Smith Says:

    It never really comes alive, does it? This could be the price of trying to recreate a moment in history with too much fidelity to the facts (I’m assuming that’s what Redford et al did). The problem with McAvoy (with him I have no problem) is that he has no one to play off of. Mary Suratt remains a cypher throughout, he doesn’t really get to square off *with* Stanton or the prosecutor, which leaves his most emotional scenes with… Alexis Bledel. Thought-provoking, yes, and ultimately it succeeds in doing what it set out to do… but you can see why this thing was rushed onto DVD, even bearing Bob Redford’s imprimatur.

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