I suppose I should subtitle these posts, “Commentary by the last person on earth to see this film.” What can I say? I’ve been busy. I missed The Conspirator altogether in the theater, though I went right out and bought the DVD the day it was released, 8/16/11. And now, on 4/8/12, I watched it! Pretty good turnaround time for me.
The Conspirator, a film by Robert Redford, was created by the American Film Company, which is dedicated to bringing accurate film portrayals of historical events to life. In other words, this isn’t the Bad Beards Club of Gettyburg or the unflinching false “history” of star vehicles like The Patriot. Every attempt was made to transmit the story of Mary Surratt, the first woman executed in the United States, as accurately as possible. This includes not only a nuanced script and knockout sets but a terrific stable of actors: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Colm Meany (the Irish character actor best known for Star Trek: the Next Generation), Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead) and Stephen Root. (Full disclosure: I adore Stephen Root. He’s a genius. I first noticed him as Jimmy James on News Radio and have enjoyed his work ever since.)
The Conspirator is about the trial of Mary Surratt, accused of aiding and abetting John Wilkes Booth in the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln. In a time of war, uncertainty and national mourning, the head of the War Department, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) decides that a quick trial, execution and burial of all conspirators is necessary for national healing.
Mary Surratt, the mother of a conspirator, is also a loyal Southerner and a devout Catholic. In 1865 Washington, these sins are enough to send her to the gallows. Trouble is, she might not be guilty. And even if she is, should she be denied due process? When no one else will take her case, Union war hero and attorney Capt. Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) is strong-armed into providing council. Through his eyes we see what it means to disapprove of another American’s philosophy or allegiances, yet still believe tossing aside individual rights in favor of vengeance is always wrong.