Reviewed by: Thaisha Geiger
Better than Average
2 hr. 3 min.
Year of Release:
April 15, 2011 (wide—550+ theaters)
DVD: August 16, 2011
“One bullet killed the President. But not one man.”
It’s been 150 years since the Civil War and the first assassination of a president. Though John Wilkes Booth is almost universally known for pulling the trigger, he was part of a much larger conspirator circle, involving several other members and several other attempted assassinations. The only woman to be tried for conspiracy was Mary Surratt.
The U.S. Constitution requires a person to have a jury of their peers. Since Mrs. Surratt’s case took place within the last few ripples of the Civil War, she was tried in a military tribunal of high-ranking Union officials. Of course, this turned out to be incredibly biased and screamed of an unfair trial. Adding to that was the corruption of the prosecutor. Not only did he personally select the members of the tribunals, he was also guilty of witness tampering and intimidation (Proverbs 17:23). Unfair overrulings also worked against Ms. Surratt as she was forbidden of testifying in her own defense. The Union officials had only one goal in mind: swift justice.
Those looking to learn more about the life and detailed trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright Penn) will likely be disappointed. Though the bulk of the film consists of tribunal proceedings and flashbacks, the film’s main objective is not to persuade the viewer of Mary’s guilt or innocence. No, it is to show regardless of her innocence, she was denied a fair trial which is guaranteed in the most important document of the U.S. government: the Constitution. In fact, Mary’s character remains more aloof than anything. Robin Wright gives one of her fiercest and most gentle performances to date. A seeming oxymoron, at first glance, Wright gives the character of Surratt enough emotion and conviction to display a devoted mother who, though facing the death penalty, refuses to give up her son, who had been more of a front runner in the Lincoln assassination.
Defending her is Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). A celebrated Union soldier, Mr. Aiken was understandably aghast at having to defend a Confederate sympathizer. His disgust with her convictions was soon wisely set aside when he decided to uphold his oath as a lawyer (Ephesians 4:31). Regardless of her actions, Frederick rightfully defended his client, despite his being ostracized, mocked, and warned (Psalm 106:3; Prov. 21:3). In spite of all this, he remains steadfast in providing justice for his client. Likewise, Jesus proclaimed his sovereignty and lordship, despite his being mocked and turned against. His followers are required to do the same in Luke 9:23-24:
Refreshingly, there isn’t any sexual content in “The Conspirator.” Two characters do kiss, but it’s sweet. In all, there are about 11 uses of profanity, including 1 SOB, 1 sh*t, 1 hell, and 6 d*mn. Though two of the latter were used correctly in saying someone was damned. God’s name is misused twice. Some social drinking takes place, but no one is shown drunk. The violence is moderate, but it’s neither overly graphic. Lincoln is shown being shot up close, but the wound is not shown. One man stabs a guard and then jumps on top of another and repeatedly stabs him. Hangings are shown. Though the victims are not shown slowly dying, one can hear when the rope disturbingly tightens as the bodies fall. Some wounded soldiers are shown in the opening scenes and have bloody faces. However, this is a very mild scene.
The film displays a good number of historical accuracies. However, I felt that perhaps Frederick Aiken was portrayed as a bit too overly heroic. Little is known of him, and research shows that he did have his inadequacies when defending Ms. Surratt. The film has a heavy, consistent motif of the government conveniently skipping the rights of the Constitution, whenever they deem fit. Perhaps some might consider this to be a modern commentary, as well. If you’re into history, like I am, then I recommend this film. It mentions some constitutional vocabulary which had me wanting to delve deeper. However, if history does not overly interest you, then you might find this film boring.
Violence: Moderate / Profanity: Moderate / Sex/Nudity: None
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.
…Speeches, orations, objections, rebuttals—so many different ways to talk, argue and pontificate, and they’re all on prominent display in Robert Redford’s expansively chatty American history lesson, “The Conspirator.” Using the fascinating, little-known events immediately following Lincoln’s assassination to rebuke the mob mentality that would deny any defendant a fair trial, this methodical courtroom drama is charged with impassioned performances and an unimpeachable liberal message. But its stodgy emphasis on telling over showing will limit its reach to Civil War buffs and self-selecting older viewers, given the mainstream aversion even to period dramas more action-oriented than this.…
…an unusually literate and thoughtful historical film, working from years of research by his screenwriter, James Solomon. I found it absorbing and relevant today.… [3/4]
…This is by no means a great movie, but in telling a gripping and little-known true story with many contemporary resonances it has time(liness) on its side. …Redford doesn’t belabour the parallels between then and now, now and then, but they’re striking (and apt) nevertheless.… [3 stars]
…As a history flick with meat on its bones, it stays true to the more genteel decorum of the day it depicts. And it leaves us to gnaw on the gristle and grit of what makes people do what they do, even when what they do goes down in history as the worst things possible.…
…A hauntingly relevant, if somewhat dry exercise, “The Conspirator” asks us to ponder crimes committed in the name of a nation hungry for blood in response to a horrific act against it.… [B]
…a cautionary, overly familiar tale… the film’s slow ramp-up, linear progression and herky-jerky sense of continuity in the courtroom scenes impair its momentum.… [2½]