Title: The Conspirator
Director: Robert Redford
Actors: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Alexis Bledel, Justin Long
Many historical dramas are fueled by their filmmakers’ conspiracies and theories on what happened during the event they’re depicting. But Robert Redford proved what an experienced, fantastic filmmaker he is with his latest directorial effort, ‘The Conspirator,’ which is being released to mark the 146th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s death. Instead of trying to push his own personal ideals onto his audience, Redford instead rightfully focuses on several different angles of President Lincoln’s assassination without taking away the American leader’s dignity.
‘The Conspirator’ follows the wake of President Lincoln’s assassination in Washington, D.C. Seven men and one woman, Mary Surratt (played by Robin Wright), are charged with helping John Wilkes Booth (played by Toby Kebbell) kill the president. The group is also believed to have aided Booth’s attempts to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward.
New lawyer Frederick Aiken (portrayed by James McAvoy, a Union war-hero, is persuaded by former Attorney General and current U.S. Senator Reveredy Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) to defend Mary in front of a military tribunal. Convinced that Booth didn’t act alone, the military is looking for a group for of people to blame. They believe Mary is a perfect target, as her son John (portrayed by Johnny Simmons) is believed to be Booth’s right-hand man. Frederick isn’t sure whether his client is innocent or guilty, but is determined to find out the answer, even though he is shunned by society for doing so.
Overall, the American Film Company, the studio behind ‘The Conspirator,’ took a risky chance deciding to release the historical drama as its first movie. The topic of whether or not northern states should have showed sympathy towards the southern states after the Civil War ended, and the continuous bitterness and urge to take revenge on the opposing side, are still controversial topics. But Redford rightfully decided not to place blame on either side. He also keeps his viewers intrigued by allowing them to decide on their own whether or not Booth acted alone. His approach to the incident was also unique, as the events in the days leading up to President Lincoln’s death have been told numerous times before. ‘The Conspirator’ recounts how the president’s death continued to keep America divided after the end of the Civil War in such a way that it allows viewers to feel as though they’re right alongside Frederick and Mary.
Redford made the right decision in hiring McAvoy to portray Frederick. He has a natural compassion towards other people that effortlessly translates onto the screen. While Frederick bravely fought for the Union throughout the entire war, McAvoy convincingly made it seem as though Frederick truly wanted to protect Mary. Frederick also truly seemed determined to defend everyone’s freedom and values, even if they were different from his own.
McAvoy also emotionally connected well to Wilkinson, as he convincingly made it seem as though Frederick truly listened to Reveredy. While Frederick’s first instinct was to not take on Mary’s case, in an effort to protect his career, friendships and place in society, what he eventually began to perceive as injustices to people’s rights led him to agree to represent her. Unfortunately, McAvoy’s emotional connection with Wilkinson didn’t stretch to his on-screen relationships with some of his younger co-stars, including Alexis Bledel, who played Frederick’s love interest Sarah Weston, and his best friend and fellow Civil War veteran, Nicolas Baker, portrayed by Justin Long.
Bledel and Long, who have both acted well in previous projects, unfortunately seemed miscast in ‘The Conspirator.’ Both are more well-known for their comedy roles (Bledel rose to fame in the family-friendly projects ‘Gilmore Girls’ and ‘The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and Long has appeared in such films as ‘Waiting’ and ‘Accepted) than their dramatic characters. Even though both are only supporting characters and appear in a few scenes, neither one seems to connect to the material at all on any level. Their characters don’t agree with Frederick’s determination to prove Mary’s innocence, and as a result, when they do appear on screen, Frederick just seems like he has to constantly defend his actions.
‘The Conspirator’ is a great tribute to President Lincoln and his fight to preserve the U.S. and re-unify the states. Redford took a bold chance in making a court room legal drama about the president’s assassination, instead of focusing on the suspense leading up to it and the search for Booth. But it’s powerful message that opposing sides should overcome their struggles, along with McAvoy’s powerful portrayal of Frederick, ultimately proved that historical dramas can be engaging and entertaining.
By: Karen Benardello