Robin Wright in a scene from The ConspiratorThis year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. It concluded four years later, which also commemorates the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It’s well known the American leader was murdered by John Wilkes Booth. However, three other men and one woman were found guilty and punished for conspiring to kill the country’s leaders. The Conspirator is the untold story of their trial, which resulted in the first female execution in the U.S.

In the wake of Lincoln’s assassination, seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State. The lone woman charged, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) owns a boarding house where Booth (Toby Kebbell) and the others met and planned the simultaneous attacks. Against the ominous back-drop of post-Civil War Washington, newly-minted lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a 28-year-old Union war-hero, reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal. Aiken realizes his client may be innocent, but she is being used as bait and hostage to capture the only conspirator to have escaped a massive manhunt – her own son, John (Johnny Simmons). As the nation turns against her, Surratt is forced to rely on Aiken to uncover the truth.

Robert Redford is an acclaimed dramatic actor, but on several occasions he’s proven to be an even better dramatic director. The Conspirator is obviously a period piece; however, it’s also a thrilling courtroom drama. Clearly, the accused are tried in a kangaroo court – their guilty verdict was synonymous with their arrest, and the Union is seeking justice which will lead to general peace. Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) is determined to achieve both goals by any means necessary, including convicting a woman of a crime she didn’t commit as Aiken proves she cannot be found responsible without a reasonable doubt.

As Aiken is further offended by the blatant disregard of the law occurring, he must enlist the help of Mary’s daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), to find evidence of her innocence because Mary refuses to say anything that will incriminate her son. In the meantime, various witnesses tell the court lies about Mary’s level of involvement in the planning of the assassinations. These high tension trial scenes are balanced by Aiken’s struggle outside the courtroom with his concerned friends and his elusive search for truth and justice.

This film’s cast is exceptional. McAvoy’s American accent is flawless as is his resolve in the face of social persecution and staunch discrimination, which required a strong character. Wright’s performance is incredibly reserved as her character is resigned to her fate, even if it means dying to protect her son. Wood is excellent as she is forced to choose between saving her mother or brother. Supporting actors include Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Danny Huston, Stephen Root and Colm Meaney, all of whom contribute terrific performances regardless of their role in Mary’s fate. On the other hand, the casting of Alexis Bledel and Justin Long is somewhat distracting, while Norman Reedus seems wasted as one of the silent conspirators.

Redford’s latest picture is gripping from beginning to end. Moreover, while comparisons to the post-9/11 “witch hunt” for someone to persecute are present, they are not so transparent as to divert from this true and riveting narrative. “If she can be convicted on such insufficient evidence, none of you are safe.”

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