Film review: The Conspirator

By Morgan Shandro

Most people know of the historic assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth in 1865. For those of us not studying American history, however, our knowledge of the event may stop there. This is often the case with history, where the main players are usually the ones most remembered, and the people on the sidelines are more easily forgotten. The Conspirator is an American film based on a true story that seeks to bring some of these people into the light. It focuses on the trial of Mary Surratt, the mother of Booth’s right-hand man. Even though the evidence against Mary is minimal, she is forced to stand in front of a military tribunal instead of going through a civilian trial, the former of which is more harshly judged and more lenient regarding evidence. Frederick Aiken, a soldier for the North during the Civil War who becomes a lawyer, reluctantly agrees to defend her. He soon realizes that her trial is being manipulated in order to try and convict her, and all the evidence against her is only circumstantial. In addition, he suspects that she is being tried in an attempt to have her son, John Surratt, turn himself in to save her.

The movie largely focuses on these injustices and Aiken’s reactions towards them. Problems are presented, but no solution to them is given. Aiken argues with others about the inequalities occurring and tries to convince them to fix the situation, but his words just continue falling on deaf ears. While it is clear that the filmmakers have made a good effort to keep the film’s plot development historically accurate, they concentrate so much on the minute details and intricacies of the trial that they overlook other aspects of the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination that might have provided moviegoers with some more excitement.

This movie might have worked better as a documentary, given its subject matter, instead of the filmmakers’ attempt to turn it into a drama. Developments such as the romance between Aiken and his girlfriend, who seems to disappear once he starts being looked down upon for defending Mary Surratt and is never mentioned again, are touched upon but do not provide enough side plot to be entertaining or relevant. They end up simply distracting the viewer from the movie’s main message, which is simply a long, drawn-out explanation of the way certain people were willing to turn a blind eye to the justice system to avenge Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Overall, The Conspirator may be worth a watch if the field of American history is in your personal or academic interest. Otherwise, skip it and go for a movie that is very historically accurate and full of explosions. Like Pirates of the Caribbean, perhaps.

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