The Conspirator (2010)

Directed by: Robert Redford

122 Minutes (PG-13)


Movie Trailer


James McAvoy
Frederick Aiken
Robin Wright
Mary Surratt
Kevin Kline
Edwin Stanton
Evan Rachel Wood
Anna Surratt
Tom Wilkinson
Reverdy Johnson
Johnny Simmons
John Surratt
Toby Kebbell
John Wilkes Booth
Jonathan Groff
Louis Weichmann
Norman Reedus
Lewis Payne (Powell)
John Michael Weatherly
George Atzerodt
Marcus Hester
David Herold
James Kirk Sparks
Edman Spangler
Dennis Clark
Andrew Johnson
Brian Duffy
Frederick Seward
Glenn R. Wilder
Secretary Seward
Gerald Bestrom Abraham Lincoln


Mark Jenkins, NPR

A better history lesson than it is a drama, The Conspirator acknowledges the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War in a studious, almost reverent mode.

Robert Redford's movie is mostly courtroom procedural, telling two interlaced stories. One is about how the U.S. government rushed a few suspects before a military tribunal in an attempt to avenge Abraham Lincoln's assassination. The other is the more intimate tale of how a young lawyer fresh out of his Union army uniform was pressed to defend Surratt — and came to respect her.

Historical records being what they are, the filmmakers are forced to speculate about certain things, but where facts are known they generally adhere to them. The script doesn't add much to what's known about Surratt (Robin Wright), a Southern sympathizer who may have been arrested simply because the government couldn't capture her son. But it inflates the nobility of lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who is portrayed as too high-minded to accept any abuse of due process.

Although the outcome of Surratt's trial is a matter of public record, The Conspirator treats the case as the stuff of a suspense thriller.

In its final minutes, the movie shows that the American justice system returned to normal soon after the South surrendered. But it offers no insights into the consequences of a war that never ends.

Claudia Puig, USA Today

Though it grabbed national headlines in its day, the story of the lone woman charged with conspiracy in the assassination of President Lincoln has seldom been covered in history classes.

Unfortunately, this quiet, deliberately paced film sometimes feels more stilted and educational than compelling.  There's a stiffness that keeps the story from packing a punch.

In 1865, Surratt ran the Washington boardinghouse where the plot to kill Lincoln was believed to have been devised. Her son John. . . was allegedly one of the co-conspirators. . . .[A]fter Lincoln's death, John Surratt disappeared.  Officials put Mary on trial in some part because John could not be found.

Mark LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

. . "The Conspirator," director Robert Redford persuades us, if not to grieve, to understand other people's grief and to look at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln with fresh eyes. He invites us to see it not as some immovable historical event, but as people of the time saw it, as an absolute outrage and an epic disaster.

It's surprising how few people know this: Lincoln's assassination was just one act in a plan to decapitate the government. The same night Lincoln was murdered, Secretary of State William Seward was stabbed and almost killed, and Vice President Andrew Johnson was the target of an abortive attempt.

Specifically, it's the story of Mary Surratt, a middle-aged Washington, D.C., widow who owned the boardinghouse where the plot was hatched. Surratt - a Southern sympathizer whose son was almost certainly part of the conspiracy - was arrested and stood trial, and for almost 150 years, controversy has surrounded her name. Was she innocent? Was she a rabid conspirator? Or was she something in between?

A Maryland senator (Tom Wilkinson) takes up her defense and is heckled and ridiculed by the military tribunal. He resigns in favor of his young colleague, the Union war hero Frederick Aiken . . .

Redford doesn't take a stand on Surratt's guilt or innocence, which, given the evidence, might actually make sense. 

To the extent the film has passion, it revolves around a cerebral, though crucial, concept: In a time of crisis, we must never be frightened into curtailing constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

"The Conspirator" is respectful of the historical record down to the small details: When the mortally wounded Lincoln is carried across the street and placed in bed, he is laid diagonally . . .The trial scenes are enraging - the tribunal is a collection of implacable thugs. . . . Whether it's something in the color palette or in the saturation of the color or in the setting of the scenes, when Redford shows an exterior, you can almost smell the air and believe that you're seeing 1865.

Trial of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators