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Anyone with a passing knowledge of American history knows that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth. What ISN'T commonly known is that Booth was part of a ring of Confederate conspirators.

And one of the most important trials of the 19th century comes to life in "The Conspirator," Robert Redford's dramatization of the trial of Mary Surratt and the men who conspired with Booth. James McAvoy and Robin Wright both give stellar performances as a clever young lawyer and a woman railroaded by an angry, vengeful government, but the direction often loses its energy and becomes rather flat and stagey.

In 1865, the Civil War has just ended and the North is celebrating its victory. But then assassins are sent to attack the Secretary of State and the Vice President. And at a play that Lincoln is attending, Booth (Toby Kebbell) shoots the president, shouts "Sic Semper Tyrannis! The South is avenged!" and somehow manages to escape the theatre. The dying Lincoln is taken to a nearby house, and dies shortly after. The conspirators are hunted down, and Booth is killed when they are burned out of the barn where they are hiding.

One of the suspects is Mary Surratt (Wright), the mother of one conspirator and the owner of a boardinghouse where they met. Since the government is determined to punish as many people as possible, she is presumed by everyone -- including former soldier/up-and-coming lawyer Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) -- to be completely guilty.

Then Aiken finds himself in the horrible position of having to defend her, even though he doesn't doubt her guilt. But her innocence or guilt soon become less certain in his mind, even as he realizes that the trial of the suspects is not a true trial -- witnesses are bribed or threatened, and the prosecution refuses to even consider that Mary might not have been a conspirator. As Aiken's life and career fall apart, he throws himself into the last desperate attempts to save her from the hangman's noose.

While obviously the assassination of Lincoln was an important moment in American history, "The Conspirator" looks at the smaller, groundbreaking changes that happened because of it -- namely, the first execution of a white woman by the federal government, and the new right of a civilian trial instead of a merely-a-formality-before-we-hang-everyone military tribunal. It's a sobering reminder that government corruption is nothing new, and that basic rights like a proper trial by one's peers must be fought for constantly, not just once.

As the backdrop to this drama, Redford does an excellent job portraying the fractured, fragile nature of a post-Civil War United States -- there's an undercurrent of seething rage and pain from both sides, glazed over with Washington parties and jaunts to elegant theatres. And the depiction of Lincoln's final hours is absolutely riveting, with the desperate and hysterical citizens crowding outside the building where he dies, surrounded by dead-eyed, hopeless officials and doctors.

Unfortunately, the movie loses a lot of its energy after the first half hour. After that first burst of energy, Mary and the conspirators are all captured and... it simply becomes very very contemplative and stagey, more like a play than a proper movie. Redford doesn't seem to quite know how to inject suspense into the courtroom drama scenes, relying mostly on the occasional outburst from Wright or McAvoy to give it some passion. So for long stretches, it just sort of drags itself along, floating Aiken through subplots that aren't very interesting (such as his visit to Mary's daughter).

McAvoy and Wright both give excellent performances here, as world-weary people who hail from opposite sides of a war that has blistered them both -- he is a fierce young lawyer whose love of justice overrides any blind loyalty to the War Department, and she is a quiet, tormented enigma whose guilt or innocence is never entirely clear. There are some solid performances by Evan Rachel Wood, Colm Meaney, Tom Wilkensen and Danny Huston, but the story effectively revolves around those two actors and the oddly combative chemistry they share.

"The Conspirator" is graced with some excellent performances and a great setting, but Robert Redford's stage-like story seems to lose its momentum after the first half hour, making it a chore to sit through some of the story. A fascinating if flawed story.
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on 6 July 2013
The movie starts with the assassination of President Lincoln and moves quickly to the trial. This was done so the audience would get a feel about how rushed the trial had become. James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, the Union officer forced to defend Mary. He believes she is guilty. Mary (Robin Wright) is a quiet woman who is a solid block of courage. She is a rebel sympathizer. The conspiracy meetings took place at her boarding house. The movie shows her face during the trial with occasional outbursts. This was not the case. Her face was veiled during most of the trial and during the testimony of her daughter Anna. However, no woman in Hollywood wants to play that role, so they had her unveiled.

Robin Wright looked very much like the depiction we have of Mary Surratt. Noticed how the Secretary of Defense took charge of the situation after the assassination and would allow the VP to take over when he said so. The acting was good and the historical dress and background characters seemed to be accurate down to the straw hats worn by the hangmen.

Robert Redford just doesn't choose movies to direct because he thinks they would make good movies. The movies are selected in order to make comparisons to our world today. The question of the legality of the military court for the conspirators is the same legal question that exists today for those at Guantanamo. Just substitute 9-11 for the assassination, and Muslims for confederates. There were threats of biological warfare and "the world has forever changed." Mr. Aiken claims how his prisoner is mistreated. It is countered by "How you forgotten how our people are treated by the rebels?" Mary is "Catholic." She wears black from head to toe. She is said to spit on every Union soldier and wears a bone from a Union soldier around her neck. They demonize and dehumanize her. Sound familiar?

Great historical drama.
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on 4 September 2011
The Conspirator is a wonderful example of how a film based on historical fact can not only be highly entertaining but also very moving.

The Story itself centres on Mary Surratt, a Southern Belle and Confederate supporter who runs a boarding house in Washington D.C. Surratt's son, also a staunch supporter of the confederate cause and courier during the war became involved in a failed plot, concocted by John Wilkes Booth to kidnap President Lincoln. Of course it is Booth who later shoots the President and it is through this link with Booth and the fact that a number of the assassins stayed at her boarding house that Mary becomes linked to the conspirators and is put on trial for the assassination of the President.

I have to say that knowing a little of the Surratt story before watching this film in no way spoiled the atmosphere or the tension of the piece. Robert Redford as a Director obviously feels quite strongly about this story and the sympathetic way in which Mary's story is told only heightens the feeling that justice was not being served as well as it might.

I don't want to give too much away suffice to say that If you are interested in History, (particularly the U.S Civil War), Court-Room Dramas, or just old fashioned Human interest stories told with heart, then this is a film you will enjoy.
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on 16 January 2013
I was really looking forward to this film of the trial of Mary Surratt, who ran the Boarding House in Washington, from where the conspiracy was hatched to first kidnap Lincoln and then assassinate him by her son and John Wilkes Boothe.

Robert Redford is a Director that is renowned for attention to detail and for assembling a good cast. In this, he has succeeded admirably and the period is captured magnificently.So, what went wrong with this courtroom drama. In my humble opinion the opening was poorly done with shots of John McCevoy being wounded in the Civil War. This scene i presume was put in to highlight his bravery and loyalty as a Unionist, so that you will understand his position when it came for him to defend Mary Surratt, whose boarding house was used to hatch the assassination plot against Lincoln. The film should have opened with more detail about the protaganists who hatched the plot and Mary Surratt herself, followed by details of her lawyer, well played by John McCevoy.

The actual trial and the injustices purportrated, i'm afraid left me flat, since Robert Redford did not give any real depth to the characters and it was only in the latter stages of the film did one feel significant empathy, with any of them.

Having said the above, if you are interested in this most important period of American History, which i happen to be with many books on the American Civil War etc, this film should be seen and is recommended, but falls short of being a really good film, unlike the film directed by Tom Hanks of 'John Adams'.
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on 22 September 2012
The Conspirator is based on a true story. It unfolds the events leading to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The film covers an important chapter of American history. Robert Redford is an accomplished actor and an excellent director. "The Conspirator" is a powerful, gripping and engaging piece of film making. James McAvoy, Robin Wright and Tom Wilkes portrayal of the characters in Post-Civil war are credible and recreate the scenes achieving a profound impact. The emotions of the characters are strongly felt.

The title of "The Conspirator" significance becomes clear in the film. It is about seven men and one woman being arrested and charged on the conspiracy of murdering President Lincoln, Vice President and Secretary of State. The motives for overthrowing the government can be connected to the American civil war. The civil war ended, as the Unions won the war, but did not prevent a backlash from rebels who continued to plan attacks. The opposition sides were known as Confederate states. This was an alliance between several Southern states, which were never recognised as an Independent state during the time. I am adding some historical insight behind the film background, as it will help to familiarise with the contents. Wilki is a good source to learn further about civil war, as it looks at root causes of the war in detail.The film specific focus is the aftermath of the attacks in arresting the key suspects and the court procedures.

Majority of the scenes of the film are based in a court room setting. It is truly amazing how the events have been recreated through a courtroom setting. It is about a defendant, Mary Surrat who owned a boarding house and secret meetings took place between the conspirators. The defendant was a Southerner and a Confederate supporter. The key questions raised here: Did Mary know about what was happening in the meetings? Was she involved in the conspiracy? Was there a miscarriage of justice? Union hero and newly appointed Frederick Aiken fought for justice to prove her innocence. The film focuses on witnesses being questioned by the prosecution and defense. There are high levels of court-room drama building up to the trial. It paints a historical picture of how the US juridical system worked and highlight important legal issues. There are pivotal moments highlighted in the film.

Overall, "The Conspirator" is a well researched and executed piece of historical film making. I was really absorbed, as it kept me interested and to learn more about the historical event. There is so much emotions and drama building up. It is beautifully directed and acted. It recaptures the events with authenticity and accurately. It deserves strong praise for quality film making and acting of the highest calibre. I would certainly recommend the film to anyone who is fascinated and expresses an interest in history. It is classed as a periodic film.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 19 August 2011
When I went to see this movie I knew nothing about it. The trailer merely indicated a period courtroom drama starring James McAvoy.

While I would hesitate to call it one of the best movies of the year, undoubtedly this movie or more precisely the story this movie relates impacted me more deeply than most do. So much so that I have bought several books on the subject to get as full an understanding of this event as possible.

As an experienced director and actor Robert Redford knows how to push the audiences buttons, making socially relevant, and relatable movies.

Here is a true story of a divided country just arrived at an uneasy peace after a bitter civil war, when recently reinaugurated President Lincoln is suddenly assassinated by an actor in a theater. Not only is the president assassinated, there is a simultaneous attempt to murder the Secretary of State Seward, and Vice President Johnson.

As the manhunt begins for Booth, and his accomplices, suspicions turn to a young known associate John Surratt. Police go to his house, and in his absence end up arresting his mother Mary Surratt for being complicit in the crime of which he is suspected. But is she guilty of being a conspirator, or just guilty of being a mother of an alleged one, an innocent running a boarding house where these conspirators would meet?

She is remanded to be tried in a military court. Frank Aiken, a young veteran of the Union Army, becomes her unwilling counsel. Her rights to a jury trial in a civilian court overruled, one can sense that the odds stacked against her. It's a desperate situation. Her guilt appears to be a foregone conlusion. She is not permitted to testify in her own defencse. Will her son return and save the day? If you're like me these are some of the questions that may run through your mind as you watch this movie.

Other people arrested with her testify for the state implicating her in the conspiracy. These people are not themselves charged. An alcoholic bartender, John Lloyd, very lucky not to be charged himself firmly impicates her with extremely damning uncorroborated testimony. A boarder Louis Weichman testifies that some of the conspirators met at her house on numerous occasions. But if he knew so much how come he did not report his suspicions to the authorities in advance?

Probably most shocking for me was new President Johnson, suspending a writ of habeas corpus written by a judge, on a matter of life and death, a precedent ironically set by Lincoln to be used in wartime, now used to seal the conspirators fates in peacetime.

I found this interference by the executive office in a judicial proceeding to be most surprising and shocking, and difficult to believe, but it turns out to be true. I checked.

For dramatic purposes, some minor but significant facts have been altered. For example, Mary Surratt had two counsel not one. In addition, there were eight people on trial not four. The four not included in the movie were given life sentences, and those surviving would ultimately be pardoned by President Johnson within four years.

One life sentence to Dr Mudd, 'his name is mud,' who treated Booth's fractured leg, and another to Ned Spangler, the stage hand and stable boy asked by Booth to hold his horse, while he went into the theater.

President Johnson famously said of her, "She kept the nest that hatched the egg."

I highly recommend this movie. If you have further interest in this topic I recommend the books American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiraciesand Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer (P.S.), both of which I own, and to a somewhat lesser degree The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln.

Two different people watching this movie could arrive at a totally different conclusion about Mary Surratt's complicity, and I think that's the way Redford would like it, to keep the mystery alive. It kept it alive for me.

I hope you enjoy this movie and I hope this review was helpful.
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Great footballers rarely make great managers or coaches and so it is true of actors directing.
Robert Redford has always had a love affair with the camera in many of his films stretching back to the 60's---- from behind the camera that flair seems to be generally absent in my humble opinion and 'Conspirator' is yet another example of Redford's lack of the ability to ENGAGE with his audience which was the keystone of his success as an actor.

This could have been much more tense, dramatic and intriguing with solid performances from all the cast not least by James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson and Kevin Kline.
It all came over rather flat and often stage bound with some scenes that a great director would have 'milked' seemingly left un-stirred by Redford.

It's a shame that after 2 hours I couldn't write something better about what I watched as I, like everyone else, wish that we had been entertained by such a historically important event as the trial of the only female conspirator involved in Lincoln's assassination.
Others may find Redford's style of directing good value but for me his talent is in front of the camera lens not behind it.
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on 21 July 2015
bad
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on 18 September 2014
I think this had the ingredients of being a good film but for me it was flat and a bit boring...It shows the trial of Mary Surratt,but the way this film is put together is to me a bit of a muddle...Indeed the whole of the country was in a muddle at that time,having just finished a civil war,so perhaps I did not look at it as a modern USA citizen would.

Abe Lincoln was dead,and the man being accused of his murder was Mary Surratt's son.The new President Johnson,put the brakes on a writ that was written by a judge......impossible we may say,but of course those difficult days following on from so much death and misery,especially in the old South, would allow such discrepancies to be allowed as shockingly legal.

If you understand the history of the USA,then you will undoubtedly enjoy this film.Sadly I admit to knowing very little about the historical facts,but there again this film is pretty accurate and it has taught me a lot about the days following the assassination of Lincoln.
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on 8 January 2012
This is an excellent movie that was interesting from start to finish. It highlighted a dark, disturbing historical event of which I knew very little.
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