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The Conspirator: movie review

'The Conspirator' is a courtroom drama about Mary Surratt, a Confederate sympathizer accused of helping to plot Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / April 15, 2011

Robin Wright (l.) portrays Mary Surratt and James McAvoy portrays lawyer Frederick Aiken in a scene from 'The Conspirator.'

Claudette Barius/Roadside Attractions/AP

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Robert Redford’s workmanlike “The Conspirator” is about Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a Confederate sympathizer who was executed for her complicity, which she denied, in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Tried in a military court as a civilian along with eight other alleged conspirators, she became the first woman to be executed by the United States federal government.

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When we are first introduced to Mary, her lawyer, Union war hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), believing she is guilty, is reluctant to take her case. As the proprietor of a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his other collaborators, including her son John (Johnny Simmons), met regularly, her claims of innocence initially ring hollow.

But Frederick delves deeper and doubts are raised, as are his hackles when he discovers that Mary, at the instigation of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), is being railroaded. (At the time of her trial, her son had not yet been captured, and she was, among things, a convenient scapegoat.)

Mary is unmistakably being utilized by Redford and his screenwriter James Solomon as a stand-in for post-9/11 victimization. He makes it clear that the post-Civil War mood, inflamed by the assassination, was ripe for rabble-rousing and the suspension of civil liberties – the liberties that soldiers like Frederick fought and died for. The images of the conspirators in the courthouse with their heads hooded in canvas bags summons up Abu Ghraib. Stanton is placed in the same strongman continuum as Dick Cheney.

The supposed contemporaneity of Surratt’s story – the equating of Booth's cronies with Gitmo prisoners – is more than a bit of a stretch, and Redford doesn’t give enough credence to the justifiable hysteria that ordinary Americans felt at the time. Essentially “The Conspirator” is a courtroom drama with occasional bulletins from the outside world. It plays out to its predictable end with the doggedness, if not the verve, of a “Law and Order” episode.

Still, the nightmare of Lincoln’s assassination, and its immediate aftermath, is effectively delivered, and Wright, shrouded in black, her face a mask of indomitable sorrow, gives great gravity to what might otherwise have been a waxworks historical reenactment. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for some violent content.)

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