THE CONSPIRATOR (Robert Redford)
A mix of conflicting emotions and uncertain ideals surround Robert Redford's historical drama THE CONSPIRATOR. Capitalizing on the infamous assassination of US President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth, the film shifts its emphasis onto a little known fragment of said event, namely the inquisition of the only "identified" woman conspirator, Mary Surratt.
Those who have little or no background on Surratt will find themselves on a thrill ride; the trial itself is a fiasco, and the outcome, though not necessarily inevitable, comes as a surprise. Past the second half of the film, you get visual hints as to what will happen to Mary Surratt in the end. A simple search on Google will tell you; I didn't have such liberty and didn't want to spoil my viewing experience so I went along. I was satisfied. Very.
James McAvoy plays the young Union Captain Frederick Aiken, who after the war returns to being a lawyer, and is designated by Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to defend Mary Surratt. McAvoy's projection of his character's moral dilemma and self-doubt is highly compelling. The transformation from doubter to believer is convincing. On a sidenote, Wilkinson as always is forceful, especially when delivering his character's convictions.
Robin Wright's Mary Surratt is multi-layered and intense. She manifests restraint during times of anger and mediocrity, which kinds of show that while the whole world views her a traitor, she is unshaken because she knows what's true. On the other side of her character, we see the maternal concern for her son, John, where she will not agree to incriminate him even in exchange for her release.
What's even remarkable in THE CONSPIRATOR is that even minor characters play huge roles in the story, and no one seems to be on lunch break, most notable of which is Justin Long, who plays his Civil War veteran character Nicholas Baker with considerable seriousness.
Redford does not stay too long on Lincoln. He even showed respect by not showing his face in full view upon his demise. What Redford does instead is to create a moral debate involving a possible innocent victim dragged into a brutal trial by men who are out for blood. As McAvoy's character puts it, "There is no limit to how far the prosecution is willing to go". In here, Redford shows us the plain picture of what happens when a trial is staged by judges who have already set their minds even before the trial began.
As a result, the feeling shifts from rage to empathy, empathy for Mary Surratt. Aiken is the only one left with enough power to save her from the gallows, but Aiken is just a small cog in a big machine who is run by murderers.
Aside from history, Redford offers us a chance to reexamine our morals, and to question our better judgment. And for that, THE CONSPIRATOR is mandatory viewing.