The Conspirator (2010)
Directed by Robert Redford
The American Film Company (or AFC) produces feature films based on true and remarkable stories from America’s past. If you haven’t heard of this up-and-comer, it’s likely because they’ve only produced one movie since their inception in 2008. This single, authentic gem is director Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator,” the true story of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (and with the recent finding of notes written by the ailing President’s doctor, all of these facts still seem to hold up). But “The Conspirator” covers the aftermath, the trial of five conspirators, which is the part you likely haven’t heard. And it covers it brilliantly.
“One bullet killed the President. But not one man.” Attorney and former Union Army captain Frederick Aiken (the fantastic James McAvoy) is offended to his core when he’s asked to defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a conspirator in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln. Surratt, the only woman charged for the conspiracy plot, was the mother of John Surratt (Johnny Simmons), the right hand to the infamous John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell). But John is nowhere to be found, leaving the mourning nation looking for closure. “It’s John you want, not Mary,” Aiken tells Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline). “I’ll take either.” As Aiken warms up to Surratt’s argument, he begins fighting harder for her defense. Aiken uncovers the truth as the conspiracy begins to unravel, but will he be able to clear his client in time to save her from a wrongful execution?
“The Conspirator” thrives with the undeniably genuine performances of Wright and McAvoy. Years beyond Forrest’s Jenny, Wright plays the hardened mother and devoted Catholic Surratt with quiet emotion. McAvoy, with historical dramas like “Atonement” and “The Last Station” already under his belt, has an unquestionable passion for his role as the troubled war veteran and Union advocate. But it’s McAvoy’s diversity (from a superhero epic like “X-Men: First Class” to an animated comedy like “Arthur Christmas” and a memorable role as Mr. Tumnus in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”) that makes this dramatic role so remarkable, as he wins our hearts with his character’s gutsy defense. Experienced stars Tom Wilkinson and Kevin Kline take little time to get into character as attorney and mentor to Aiken, Reverdy Johnson, and Secretary of War Stanton, respectively. But one man seems unfortunately unprepared for his rather serious role. Who seems to throw this good thing off its course? None other than rom-com veteran Justin Long, ill-equipped to handle a role in any historical drama, playing Aiken’s war buddy Nicholas Baker.
AFC goes to unquestionable lengths to ensure absolute historical authenticity in “The Conspirator,” and it nails it…literally. The production designers went as far as procuring square-headed nails when constructing the film’s large gallows, and filmed the entirety of the movie in and around Savannah, Georgia, in order to match Reconstruction-era Washington D.C. (Most historians agree that present-day Savannah most closely resembles post-Civil War-era America). Such absolute loyalty to the truth helps the audience feel part of the story, an omniscient character in this tantalizing tale of crime and betrayal.
A haunting score sets the mood, incredible POV cinematography puts you right in the middle of the action, and the script (penned by James D. Solomon, “The Bronx is Burning”) gives “The Conspiracy” not only total authenticity but a truly dramatic and cinematic presence, the perfect docudrama.
Snag the two-disc special edition and see the 67-minute documentary filled with interesting (seriously!) true accounts of what happened in the days following Lincoln’s death. “The Conspirator” is one of the most riveting and genuine historical dramas of this new century, giving the American Film Company a jump-start toward a prosperous and history-laden future.