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The Conspirator - Recycling History

Robert Redford's movie, The Conspirator, will be seen by some as a left-wing screed at best, anti-American at worst. The story in a nutshell - one you probably won't find in schoolchildren's history books; certainly it wasn't in mine:


A plot hatched by Southerners unfolds, first to kidnap Lincoln, then to kill him, with John Wilkes Booth the trigger man. Booth is shot and killed and others are arrested, including Mary Surratt, the mother of John Surratt, possibly one of the conspirators. The story centers on Mary Surratt (Robin Wright Penn) and a trial that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) trumps up in hopes of putting the Lincoln assassination to bed. Frederick Aiken (Robert McAvoy), a young ex-Union soldier, is pressed into duty to defend Surratt. As the trial progresses, Aiken remains unsure of his client's guilt or innocence, but he becomes increasingly incensed at the way in which the US government takes liberties with Surrat's Constitutional rights. 

Redford's script puts the Union on trial as well as Surratt, the trial by military tribunal, which becomes a dark harbinger of today's Patriot Act (Just recently re-affirmed by Congress' House, by both Democrats and Republicans). Redford takes a clinical approach here, refusing to take sides in this historical showdown. While Aiken's role would seem on the surface the moral voice, Stanton's reaches more broadly (if not deeper) to say that the Union must be preserved at all cost. And this was certainly the reason the Union initiated their part of the war. 

Beyond the movie-style political implications, the acting was superb across the board, the plot, complete with flashbacks, inventive, if not a bit tedious at times. And the period-piece background was done about as well as I can imagine. 

The Conspirator will make many viewers uncomfortable, but nettlesome problems that keep recurring are like that. It's not summer blockbuster fare, but it's a movie everyone should see.