Feb 272012

The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford is an earnest historical film that tells the story of Mary Suratt, the first woman to be tried and hanged in the United States of America. The film is set in the period following the end of the Civil War and the the assassination of President Lincoln.

The synopsis

In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of State. The lone woman charged, Mary Surratt, 42, owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks. Against the ominous back-drop of post-Civil War Washington, newly-minted lawyer, Frederick Aiken, a 28-year-old Union war-hero, reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal. As the trial unfolds, 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.

The film works on two levels. The first is the straight story of the trial of Mary Suratt (Robin Wright), who is accused of being part of the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln, and the efforts made by her lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) to save her. The second, and this is what makes the movie earnest, is the issue of the “rule of Law” and “rights of citizens” and whether they apply to people you don’t like and causes that you find distasteful.

The film begins with a battle field sequence that establishes that Aiken is a Union Officer, a brave man and a war hero. But, the film is not about the Civil War. The film is about the deep rent in American Society caused by the War, a division that is made worse by the assassination of Lincoln and the desire of the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) to make someone (it could be anyone) pay for the murder of a well loved President. That someone is Mary Suratt, the owner of a boarding house, in Washington, where the conspirators to the murder met regularly. Frederick Aiken begins as a reluctant defender of Mary Suratt. However,  Aiken realises that the Constitutional Process is being subverted in the interests of giving the people a verdict they want, and that Suratt may not be guilty.

The parallels between the post War and post Assassination paranoia and the post 9/11 reactions are unmistakable. In fact it is so overt that it is really very overt. from the hooded masks use to cover the faces of the , to the military tribunal. from the suspension of civil rights to the military prison, there very little that is subtle or left to the viewer to form linkages. While watching the film and hearing the various arguments being made for the rule of law and the right to a fair trial and the right to legal representation – I couldn’t but help think of the situation when leading papers and TV news channels ask why India needs to spend money in keeping Kasab alive (and by implication why he needs to go through the legal process). The film is that subtle 😀


The film rests on a single base – that Constitutional Rights are paramount. The problem with an approach like that is that the human story becomes secondary. It is the story of the trial and the battle between those who wish to subvert the constitution and those who wish to defend it. Mary Suratt, in the film is not a well etched out character  but a symbol . She represents the victim of State Paranoia. The human story, the story of Mary Suratt is lost. Robin Wright does a commendable job in terms of bringing dignity to the character, but the character herself is not fleshed out. James McAvoy has a slightly better canvas to play with. His character graph is slightly better etched out. He is more than the man against the system. The support cast is fantastic. Especially Kevin Kline.

The period is beautifully reconstructed. the lighting is superb – i loved the muted shades and tones through the film. The background score was exemplary and not intrusive..

Is it worth watching – yes. Despite its flaws the film is worth watching. ITt is well shot, well acted, holds  your attention and leaves you with something to think about ..