Movie Review: The Conspirator (2011)

Posted: April 7, 2012 in Drama
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On April 14th 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot and mortally wounded Abraham Lincoln.  But Booth’s plan went much deeper than that.  Booth also wanted to kill Vice President Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward, and sent out conspirators to do.  Seward was wounded, but survived, Johnson’s assassin didn’t go through with his part of the plan.  The government accused Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) owner of the boarding house where the conspirators meet, as being in the thick of the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln.  Union war veteran and newly minted lawyer Fredrick Aiken (James McAvoy) is asked by Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson  (Tom Wilkenson) to defend Surratt.  Secretary of War Stanton orders that all conspirators in the Lincoln assassination to be tired by military tribunal.  After some fierce initial doubt, Aiken defends his client ferociously, believing that Surratt is defending her son, John (Johnny Simmons) who is suspected to be another co-conspirator. Is Surratt protecting her son?  Or is she guilty of being part of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln?

Whether or not Mary Surratt was part of the conspiracy or not, this is a compelling story to watch. The movie definitely manipulates the viewer into emphasizing with Mary Surratt, who history doesn’t necessarily look kindly on.  The movie seems to have a thumb on the scales of justice on behalf of Surratt.  It seems like the movie wants to make a statement on the possibility of military tribunals for detainees at Gitmo, but there haven’t been many military trials for detainees, and the Supreme Court has addressed many detainee issues, so they’ve had their day in court so I won’t address that issue here.  There are also strong parallels between the Anti Muslim mood of the country after 9/11 and the anti-Confederate mood in 1865, and the movie plays up those parallels.  The performances are excellent, especially by McAvoy, who’s struggle to defend Surratt is part of part of what makes his performance so interesting to watch.  He is a former Union solder defending a Confederate sympathizer, and that inner turmoil is part and parcel of McAvoy’s performance.  Robin Wright has a tougher job, how to make someone who may be involved in the Lincoln assassination a sympathetic character.  Wright does so and does it convincingly.  Tom Wlikenson, however, was not so good, generally chewing scenery and spouting pious platitudes about the Constitution and its importance in the time of war.  Justin Long is miscast as Aiken’s friend, and Alexis Bledel’s character, Aiken’s girlfriend, should never have been written.  This is a must watch movie, and McAvoy deserves an Oscar nod, as does Wright.

There is a new conspiracy if this movie wins no Oscars.

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