Playing out amidst defining historical moments, The Conspirator takes as its focus a reluctant and unlikely hero. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is thrust into the spotlight as the defense attorney for Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the one woman tried as a co-conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In the tradition of great courtroom movies (Breaker Morant, Paths of Glory), The Conspirator unfolds with a slow burn. A bit tedious at times and demanding greater attention than your average weekend blockbuster, the film pays off with a thought-provoking resonance.
Lingering only briefly in the Civil War battlefield, the world of The Conspirator (rated PG-13 for some violent content) is the smoke-filled courtroom, shadowed military prisons, and darkened interiors of a nation at war with itself. The story follows the trial of the seven men and one woman arrested and charged as co-conspirators in Lincoln's assassination.
The death of the president comes on the heels of Union victory, and the country is wounded with fear and resentment on both sides. In an effort to restore a sense of public order, the secretary of war (Kevin Kline) organizes a swift and merciless military tribunal. With hatred of the Confederacy rampant, press and popular opinion convict the defendants before the trial even begins. Thrust into the midst of this is Aiken, a young Union army hero and an unlikely candidate to defend Surratt. Aiken's struggle and his ensuing defense comprise the bulk of the film. The resulting story is at times poignant, surprising, and resonant with contemporary allusions.
Wright's performance as the stoic and determined Surratt carries much of the film. As Surratt endures near savage prison conditions and a lawless trial, her drawn face, devotion to her Catholic faith, and sacrificial nature can't help but reference Joan of Arc. And McAvoy is appealing as the conflicted and passionate hero. The stately directing (from Robert Redford) at times feels overly restrained, but good performances and able storytelling win out.