The Conspirator

Directed by Robert Redford. Cast: Robin Wright, James McEvoy, Kevin Kline

Did Mary Surratt know of the Lincoln assassination plot hatched under her boarding house’s roof? No one knows for sure. But The Conspirator is not really about what Surratt (Wright) knew or what she did. This costume drama doubles as a quasi-parable about how the constitutional process of justice can miscarry when the government hijacks it during a crisis. Frederick Aiken (McEvoy) is a cynical ex-Union officer cajoled into defending Surratt. His sympathies shift as he realizes that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kline), who’s grabbed the government’s reins, is determined to hang somebody—even a woman—in order to short-circuit more assassinations, guerrilla civil war and anarchy. Aiken is reduced to emotive speechifying. By turns, the movie can seem longwinded, claustrophobic or engaging. But at its best, it effectively communicates the rampant fears and floating anxieties gripping our war-battered nation after Lincoln’s murder.


Originally published in the August 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.