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In the wake of Abraham 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, 42, owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth Toby Kebbell, 26, and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks. Against the ominous backdrop of post-Civil War Washington, newly-minted lawyer Frederick Aiken James McAvoy, a 28-year-old Union war ero, reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal. Aiken realizes his client may be innocent and that she is being used as bait and hostage in order 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 and save her life. From director Robert Redford, The Conspirator is a riveting thriller that tells a powerful story about America then and now.
If there's a theme running through Robert Redford's directorial career, it's the drive for social justice. When even one person receives unfair treatment, everyone suffers like the family in his Oscar-winning Ordinary People. Even school kids are familiar with the fate of Abraham Lincoln, but the ensuing trial has received less attention--and perfectly illustrates Redford's concerns. After the assassination, John Wilkes Booth Toby Kebbell met his maker, leaving his coconspirators to answer for their attempts on the lives of the president, vice president, and secretary of state. Senator Johnson Tom Wilkinson charges Civil War general-turned-attorney Frederick Aiken James McAvoy with the defense of Mary Surratt Robin Wright, who ran the boarding house in which the men, including her missing son Johnny Simmons, used to meet. Though no evidence links Mary to their crimes, judge advocate Joseph Holt Danny Huston believes justice should trump fairness, stating, "At times of war, the law falls silent." Though Aiken assumes that his Southern client would welcome revenge against the Union, he aims to represent her fairly, even if that means appealing to a jury of Northerners and dealing with unreliable witnesses. A man of principle, he gives it his all, even convincing Mary's daughter Evan Rachel Wood to testify to facts her mother would prefer to keep private. The outcome would lead to legal reforms that are with us today, making for a film with contemporary relevance that remains, nonetheless, somewhat dramatically inert. As a plea for equal protection, however, it's quite affecting. --Kathleen C. Fennessy