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Friday, March 22, 2013

Review: The Conspirator

The Real Lincoln Lawyer

By Chris Sabga



Release Date: April 15, 2011 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama, History
Running Time: 122 minutes
Director: Robert Redford
Writers: James D. Solomon, 
Gregory Bernstein
Cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, 
Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, 
Tom Wilkinson, Justin Long, 
Danny Huston, James Badge Dale, 
Colm Meaney, Alexis Bledel, 
Johnny Simmons, Toby Kebbell, 
Johnathan Groff, Stephen Root, 
John Cullum, Norman Reedus


We've all been taught that John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. But according to "The Conspirator," there's more to the story. As stated in the film, "one bullet killed the President, but not one man." Apparently, there was a conspiracy to murder Lincoln – with many people involved in its planning, execution, and aftermath. The assassination, and Wilkes Booth's role in it, is covered in the first few minutes of the film. After that, it turns into a full-fledged courtroom drama as a series of key players are introduced.

Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) – a soldier who fought for the North in the Civil War – is prompted to defend one of the alleged conspirators, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). He's coerced into it by his boss, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). No matter how guilty Surratt may seem, Johnson argues, even she is entitled to fair legal representation. After all, this is America and it's her constitutional right. At first, Aiken is against the idea and firmly believes that Surratt aided in the assassination of Lincoln. She's under suspicion because she owns a boarding house in town that welcomed Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) and others in the past.

McAvoy, Wright, and Wilkinson are all superb in their respective roles. Wright, in particular, shines as the fierce and fiery Mary Surratt. She radiates and dominates the screen with a powerful, memorable performance. That's no small feat considering the who's who of other great actors involved: Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Stephen Root, Alexis Bledel, Justin Long (cast against type, badly), Colm Meaney, Danny Huston, Norman Reedus (Boondock Saints), and Johnny Simmons all join McAvoy, Wright, and Wilkinson. There's even a cameo by John Cullum, who is better known for his occasional appearances as Barry Moredock on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

Of the supporting cast, Kline, Meaney, and Huston are especially effective. The same, however, can't be said for Justin Long. He's usually one of the highlights of any film he's in, but he seems woefully out of place in the post-Civil War period. It's admirable for an actor to take risks, but this one didn't pay off. The role is small enough, though, that it doesn't really affect the movie.

The one area where "The Conspirator" truly falters is the clunky, heavy-handed way in which it tries tie the events of Lincoln's era to 9/11, George W. Bush, and the War on Iraq. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kline) is even portrayed as a Dick Cheney type. This might have been an effective plot device the first or even second time it was used in a movie, but now it's just annoying and unnecessary. Thankfully, only a minor portion of the film degenerates into a pointless political soapbox. With a story as strong as this one, there is no need for it.

Otherwise, director Robert Redford and writer James Solomon strive for historical accuracy, and Redford believes they achieved it. What ultimately matters is the overall quality of the movie. In that regard, "The Conspirator" is an outstanding effort that shines a new light on the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

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