Directed by Robert Redford, The Conspirator tackles a difficult subject with the even tougher aim of making it engaging and insightful. Everyone knows the historic event's outcome, yet the filmmakers' job is to keep you glued to the seat just the same.
The film focuses on the aftermath of the assassination. Of the eight people arrested for conspiring to kill the president, one was a woman: boarding house owner Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). She's brought before a military tribunal, where she is defended by lawyer and war hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). The nation, especially secretary of war Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), wants her hanged.
But contrary to the innocent-until-proven-guilty approach, Surratt is judged on an eye-for-an-eye basis.
Inevitably, the movie turns into a dragged-out courtroom drama - minus the engaging lawyer-witness repartee. Surratt never receives a fair hearing and pays the price.
The film is less about her case than about the unwillingness of the government to give her a fair hearing. The real travesty of the movie is that we never learn if she was even innocent.