By Tressa Eckermann, Senior Staff Writer
It’s not justice you’re after – it’s revenge,” Fredrick Aiken (James McAvoy) tells Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) in “The Conspirator,” director Robert Redford’s latest film.
“The Conspirator” is the story of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the only woman charged as a co-conspirator in the killing of President Lincoln, and the mother of John Surratt, one of the eight conspirators that included John Wilkes Booth. The 28-year-old Fredrick Aiken is a Union solider who recently returned from the war and is just beginning to practice law. His mentor, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) asks him to take the case. He is reluctant at first but soon begins to see the injustices in Surratt’s military tribunal.
This movie isn’t just about the execution of Surratt. Though it plays like a legal thriller, you never get that David and Goliath feel. History has told us how this story ends, and it’s fairly clear from almost the first courtroom scene that Aiken has no chance of winning.
“The Conspirator” also isn’t about what Surratt did or didn’t know about the conspiracy. It’s more about the unfairness of her trial and a commentary on our current court system. It eerily echoes the frenzy of modern society and how easily people can get caught up in their grief and confusion and just how dangerous that can be.
Redford, who won an Academy Award in the 1980s for his first directing effort, “Ordinary People,” begins the movie by taking us step by step through the assassination in a disorienting and nerve wrenching scene. “The Conspirator” is set against a backdrop of a history that everyone knows, except he shows us a story that few of us have ever heard. Because of that, he is able to make a tightly woven and engrossing courtroom drama.
Wright is strong and intense as Mary, a women who described herself as a “Southerner, a devoted Catholic, and a mother first.” She plays her fearlessly and incites so much sympathy that audience members were moved to tears by the end of the film.
McAvoy has already proven in films like the harrowing “Atonement” and “The Last King of Scotland” that he is a wonderful actor, and he turns in a fine, stoic performance as the deeply principled Aiken. He’s willing to give up everything, including his girlfriend (Alexis Bledel), his friends (Justin Long and James Badge Dale) and his reputation to fight what he sees as a terrible injustice. His scenes with Wright are among the best in the movie as he battles himself and his uncertainties about her guilt.
Redford is careful never to say whether he thought Surratt was innocent or guilty, though the words “witch hunt” come to mind more than once while watching. However, the scariest aspect of the movie is that the men who are trying so desperately to convict Surratt believe they are doing the right thing, that they are “healing” a nation.
The film is a little heavy-handed and slowly paced at times. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but when things pick up, “The Conspirator” stands as a wonderful example of truly fine filmmaking and a cautionary tale about putting people on trial based on nothing more tan our emotions.