The Conspirator opens with a brutal bang on the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. In the aftermath, eight conspirators are charged with plotting to murder the President, Vice-President, and Secretary of State. The lone woman among them, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices met to plan the attacks. Her son, John, was also allegedly part of the conspiracy, though he conveniently vanished after the killings.
Twenty-seven-year-old war hero and lawyer Frederic Aiken (James McAvoy) reluctantly consents to defend Mary when her Southern attorney (Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson) convinces him she needs a Yankee soldier on her side for any hope of a fair trial, especially since she’s a civilian being tried by a military tribunal. While Johnson deems it an unconstitutional "travesty", war secretary Stanton (Kevin Kline) and his paranoid supporters think only of swift justice for sake of the nation’s survival. Despite declaring victory, there’s enough Confederate rebellion and intrigue afoot in addition to the president’s death that they’re rightfully worried the war won’t stay won.
Like most Lincoln supporters Aiken is sure Mary’s guilty and believes helping her betrays his country. He smirks with hatred and distrust when she denies being an assassin during their first jail cell interview. Yet his compassion and sense of justice gets the better of him as he soon realizes the military tribunal and its prosecutor Holt (Danny Huston), decided Mary’s fate long before the trial began and will do whatever it takes (bribery, coercion) to make sure they get the outcome they demand: either Mary’s head in a noose, or her son's. Aiken does his best, aided by Mary’s daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), to raise enough reasonable doubt to save her, and for his reward is ostracized by his peers and girlfriend Sarah (Alexis Bledel).
Much of the details around the trial, especially the most damming testimony draws from actual historical accounts. Iconic images, like Lincoln's portrait wreathed on the black train carrying his corpse, or merchants hawking Lincoln memorabilia outside the military prison; evoke an authentic sense of time and place. Director Robert Redford also effectively uses every cinematic trick at his disposal -- dim lighting, disconcerting perspectives, to convey the sense of doom, mourning, confusion and hysteria that engulfed the wounded young country in the dark days after Lincoln’s loss. Behind-the-action close ups of stabbings seem disturbingly more violent than the bloody thrusts you regularly witness in other modern movies. Similarly the camera’s low, first-person perspective of men bearing the fallen leader through a tide of terrified bystanders, amplifies the feeling of disorientation and panic.
Though everyone in the cast plays their parts well, McAvoy, Wright and Wood most poignantly and brilliantly put a face to the echoing despair, anger, and desperation that prevails over their legal battle. A courtroom drama staged not to expose Mary’s guilt or innocence, but that of her judges. Atmospheric, illuminating and affecting, The Conspirator captivates like an untold story--one that you can't believe you've never heard until now, and won't soon forget.