Directed by: Robert Redford
Premise: A dramatization of the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who was accused of participating in the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
What Works: The Conspirator is an excellent example of historical storytelling. To start, it is simply a well-crafted courtroom drama. Successful films of this sort, like A Few Good Men, Inherit the Wind, or To Kill a Mockingbird, often center on the relationship between the ideal of justice and its practical application through legal institutions and procedures. In these stories the tension often arises from the disparity between justice and law and the better films in this genre expose the shortcomings and human failings of the system while provoking critical ideas about our ideals of justice and how a society deals with its lawbreakers. The Conspirator does this very well. The story follows the legal response to one of the most notorious crimes in American history and the defense of Mary Surratt ultimately isn’t just about her but about the value of law and order and how the rush to preserve security and stability for the nation might run roughshod over individuals, and ultimately put the future of the country in jeopardy. This theme is dramatized effectively in the performances. Robin Wright plays Mary Surratt and her character is complex, a woman who maintains her innocence and does her best to maintain her dignity but her pride is also counterproductive to her own wellbeing and to defense, and like the other characters in the film her convictions are challenged when she has to consider just who and what she is defending. Also impressive is James McAvoy as former Union soldier Frederick Aiken who is charged with defending Surratt. The Conspirator is ultimately about Aiken’s journey from not wanting to defend a woman who stood with the enemy to eventually delivering her impassioned defense. Aiken’s story is central to the theme of this film as the character matures and deepens his understanding about the values of freedom and law. And the success that The Conspirator has with that theme elevates it beyond just another costume drama. This film tells a self-contained story with just enough expository information to make the historical context clear while not bogging down the story with unnecessary details. At the same time, the filmmakers use history to comment upon the present. The problems of justice and public opinion and the use of military tribunals in place of civilian courts are put center stage in this story and The Conspirator manages to connect the social panic and political calculations of one era with our own time.
What Doesn’t: The one shortcoming of The Conspirator is a tendency to be predictable. Aiken is a likable underdog character and anyone who has seen similar courtroom dramas about lawyers advocating on behalf of unpopular defendants will likely predict where this story is going. It’s still a riveting story and its thematic points are nevertheless valid but from time to time the plot beats are familiar.
DVD extras: The two-disc edition includes a commentary track, documentary, featurettes, trailer, and TV spots.
Bottom Line: The Conspirator is a terrific drama. This film does exactly what legal dramas should do, which is to put both people and their institutions on trial, and it does that with an involving and sometimes frightening story.
Episode: #368 (December 18, 2011)