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The Con­spir­a­tor, his­tor­i­cal court­room drama, rated PG-13, 3.5 chiles On the evening of April 14, 1865, as Abra­ham Lin­coln sat in Ford’s The­ater in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., en­joy­ing (one hopes) a pro­duc­tion of Our Amer­i­can Cousin, John Wilkes Booth slipped into his box, put a pis­tol to the pres­i­dent’s head, and fired.

The as­sas­si­na­tion of a pres­i­dent was un­prece­dented in the nation’s young his­tory, and it hor­ri­fied a coun­try still trau­ma­tized by the ter­ri­ble Civil War that had ef­fec­tively ended just five days ear­lier with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s sur­ren­der at Ap­po­mat­tox. In our time, the only thing that com­pares to that cat­a­clysm of na­tional shock and grief is Sept. 11. And it is that frame of ref­er­ence that drives Robert Red­ford’s in­spired his­tor­i­cal drama, The Con­spir­a­tor.

Booth, who broke his an­kle as he leapt to the stage, shout­ing, “Sic sem­per tyran­nis!” man­aged to es­cape, but he was even­tu­ally hunted down and killed. In the days af­ter Lin­coln’s as­sas­si­na­tion, a num­ber of peo­ple sus­pected of com­plic­ity in the plot were caught up in a wide-rang­ing drag­net. Among them was Mary Sur­ratt, owner of a Wash­ing­ton board­ing­house where the con­spir­a­tors met and mother of John Sur­ratt, a Con­fed­er­ate spy im­pli­cated in the plot. Ul­ti­mately she was brought to trial along with seven men (her son John es­caped cap­ture). Her trial is at the heart of this movie.

Red­ford opens with a not en­tirely nec­es­sary bat­tle­field vi­gnette that in­tro­duces us to Capt. Fred­er­ick Aiken ( James McAvoy) in or­der to es­tab­lish his bona fides as a Union hero. It is Aiken, a lawyer in peace­time, who will be drafted by his friend and pa­tron, Mary­land sen­a­tor Reverdy John­son (Tom Wilkin­son), to lead the de­fense of Mrs. Sur­ratt (Robin Wright). Aiken is an un­will­ing re­cruit. A com­mit­ted Union loyalist, he has noth­ing but con­tempt and bit­ter­ness to­ward any­one sus­pected of in­volve­ment in the slay­ing of his com­man­der in chief.

At the in­sti­ga­tion of Sec­re­tary of War Ed­win M. Stan­ton (Kevin Kline), the ac­cused are re­manded to a mil­i­tary tri­bunal for trial. “A mil­i­tary trial of civil­ians is an atroc­ity!” John­son protests. “The world has changed,” says Stan­ton, ar­gu­ing that, for the peace of mind of the coun­try, what is im­por­tant is to move on. “I want these peo­ple buried and for­got­ten.” “Aban­don­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion is not the an­swer,” John­son re­torts.

It’s not hard to see that Red­ford and screen­writer James D. Solomon have their eye on Guan­tá­namo and the abridge­ment of civil lib­er­ties in post-9/11 Amer­ica, but the par­al­lels are not be­la­bored. “I don’t want to hit that too hard be­cause then it sounds like agit-pro­pa­ganda,” Red­ford re­marked in an in­ter­view with USA To­day. “I don’t think Amer­i­cans re­spond too well to that. But you can show them some­thing and let them de­cide.”

What he shows us is a sym­pa­thetic Sur­ratt and a re­luc­tant Aiken grad­u­ally com­ing to be­lieve that his client is be­ing rail­roaded. His­tory is am­biva­lent on the ques­tion of her in­no­cence, and the movie’s em­pha­sis is not on that but on the break­down of con­sti­tu­tional process.

In the tri­bunal, the most damn­ing ev­i­dence against Mary Sur­ratt was pro­vided by a pair of wit­nesses who were among those in­car­cer­ated in the af­ter­math of the as­sas­si­na­tion. The po­si­tion taken by the de­fense — and by the film — is that their tes­ti­mony is tainted by the pos­si­bil­ity of an of­fer of free­dom in ex­change for say­ing what the pros­e­cu­tion wanted to hear.

McAvoy ( Atone­ment), among the three Bri­tish ac­tors with lead­ing roles in this Amer­i­can drama (along with Wilkin­son and Colm Meaney as the Union of­fi­cer head­ing the tri­bunal), is ter­rific in es­tab­lish­ing the arc of his char­ac­ter from hos­tile con­script to pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cate. Aiken’s is a path that re­quires ex­tra­or­di­nary courage un­der the hys­ter­i­cal con­di­tions that pre­vail at such a time, and his com­mit­ment to the prin­ci­ples of law and jus­tice cost him dearly. McAvoy han­dles the role with fire and in­tel­li­gence (and with an unim­peach­able Amer­i­can ac­cent).

The sup­port­ing ac­tors are all ex­cel­lent, with Kline clearly rel­ish­ing the role of Stan­ton, a bul­ly­ing, end­sjus­tify-the-means bender of truth and con­sti­tu­tional rights who bears a nag­ging re­sem­blance to a cer­tain vice pres­i­dent of re­cent mem­ory. Wright is pale and ap­peal­ing as the un­apolo­getic South­ern sym­pa­thizer who nonethe­less de­nies any know­ing com­plic­ity in the plot against the pres­i­dent.

Red­ford di­rects with a mas­ter­ful sense of the pe­riod. The char­ac­ters con­vinc­ingly in­habit the time and space in which we find them. Solomon’s script is on tar­get in terms of his­tor­i­cal ac­cu­racy, and it weaves in ver­ba­tim quo­ta­tions from the trial and the swirling events sur­round­ing that fran­tic mo­ment in our his­tory. The art direc­tion by Mark Garner per­sua­sively recre­ates a small-town Wash­ing­ton at mid­cen­tury, and New­ton Thomas Sigel’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy makes ex­pert use of nat­u­ral light­ing to cre­ate an at­mos­phere you can al­most touch.

It’s un­usual for a film of such am­bi­tion and qual­ity to come into the­aters at this time of year. It may be that Red­ford thought what it had to say was too timely to wait upon the niceties of po­si­tion­ing for the Os­car dance. Guan­tá­namo still en­dures, habeas cor­pus has be­come as quaint as bloomers, the Pa­triot Act glow­ers over our shoul­ders, and as we pre­pare to en­ter our sec­ond decade of per­ma­nent war, with its bruis­ing im­pact on the Con­sti­tu­tion, this film comes along to re­mind us that fear is no le­git­i­mate ex­cuse for aban­don­ing the prin­ci­ples of free­dom and jus­tice on which this nation was founded.

Robin Wright as Con­fed­er­ate war widow Mary Sur­ratt, who was im­pli­cated in the plot to kill Abra­ham Lin­coln

James McAvoy and Tom Wilkin­son

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