James McAvoy

MOVIE REVIEW ON VIDEO: The Conspirator Is for those with Inquisitive Minds

Lithograph of the Assassination of Abraham Lin...

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The Conspirator is an excellent movie but not everyone’s taste. If you are in the mood for a mind numbing movie to kill a couple of hours then this is definitely not the movie you want; but, if you are a history buff and want your thinking and beliefs to be challenged, then you are in luck.

This post Civil War drama (directed by Robert Redford) centers on two minor characters in history who were on the fringes of the Lincoln assassination. Even though they were insignificant players, they played a major role in our legal system and the reconstruction period. It is the story of the trial of the conspirators behind the plot to kill Lincoln and one very unlucky and lonely lawyer appointed to defend one of the conspirators. Frederick Aiken, brilliantly played by Scottish actor James McAvoy, must defend Mary Surrat (Robin Wright) owner of the boarding house where the plot was constructed. As he fights for her rights he is abandoned by his fiancé, friends, social club, and colleagues.

Aiken, a Union war hero, becomes the unwilling defender of Mary Surrat, a southern sympathizer. Aiken tries to get out of the appointment but gradually begins to believe in her innocence. She is being tried in a military court even though she is a civilian and he sees that her rights as a citizen are being violated. He argues she is being denied her right to be tried by a jury of her peers.  However, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, played by Kevin Kline, wants her tried quickly to quiet the unrest and help the country heal after the devastation of the war and death of a president. What is implied is that he also wants her found guilty as quickly as possible so the uproar can be put behind them.

The real conflict of the movie is whether or not the rule of law will prevail. The rule of law, as defined by Lexis Nexis, an online legal source, is the principle that no one is above the law….The principle is intended to be a safeguard against arbitrary governance, whether by a totalitarian leader or by mob rule. Thus, the rule of law is hostile both to dictatorship and to anarchy.

Mary Surrat was found guilty and hanged; but was she guilty or not? According to Roger Ebert’s review, “They require us to think our own way through the case and arrive at our own opinions.” After the trial Aiken was instrumental in creating a law that requires civilians to be tried in civilian courts—not a military tribunal. The case and its consequences have relevance today. Can you imagine the hysteria if a similar scenario happened today? We would have 24 hour news services screaming for justice (remember the Casey Anthony case?) and angry mobs everywhere.

Our country is founded on the rule of law. That is, the law—not a single person, monarch, or even mob—has the final say. Our legal system and government aren’t perfect and many decisions have been handed down that were not popular; but it is the best system around. We have over 200 years that prove it. Look at what is happening in Libya, Egypt, Syria, etc.

Major criticism of the movie is that it is slow and I am sure it is to those accustomed to bang’um up and shoot’um up movies. However, I found it very engrossing and thought-provoking. I am happy to see that the producers, The American Film Co., have two other projects in production. One is a story about abolitionist John Brown and another about Paul Revere’s ride. I strongly recommend Sarah Palin see that one.

 I highly recommend this for history buffs, attorneys, and those with inquisitive minds. It brings a brief but important moment in history alive and puts us right in the center of it. You can almost feel the heat and contention in the courtroom.

I give it an A-.