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The Conspirator (2010) Review

Updated on September 17, 2015
Nick Burchett profile image

Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in History. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

The American Film Company’s 2010 production of "The Conspirator" takes place during the tumultuous portion at the end of the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre on April 14th, 1865. The story revolves around the circumstances of one of the conspirators, Mary E. Surratt, her attorney, Frederick Aiken – a former Union Army officer - and the trial that would prove her innocence or guilt and test Aiken’s resolve to find the truth and serve justice or to allow the emotional fervor of the nation after the death of the President to taint his perspective of right and wrong.

The story begins with a brief scene of Aiken and his comrade, Nicholas Baker, injured on the battlefield of the Civil War. The story quickly progresses to the night of Lincoln’s assassination and the controlling nature that is to be portrayed of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton as he begins orchestrating the search for those involved in the murder of the President. We then begin to focus on the details surrounding Mary Surratt’s defense and the reluctant assignment of Aiken to defend her by his mentor, Reverdy Johnson.

As Aiken begins to unravel the details of events through Mrs Surratt’s daughter, Anna, and the apparent unfairness and corrupted nature of the tribunal, his once disillusionment of representing Mrs Surratt begins to turn into a crusade to provide justice, even at the criticism of his friends and wife. He begins to try to save Mrs Surratt by proving that her son John Surratt was to blame, not Mary, but that Mary was protecting her son. As the guilty verdict is handed down Aiken runs to the aid of Supreme Court Justice Wiley to obtain a writ of habeas corpus to try and get Mary Surratt a civilian trial instead of a military tribunal and save her from the gallows. He obtains the writ and smugly presents it to Stanton who questions Aiken’s Union loyalty.

The next day he is giving the good news to Mary Surratt and her daughter when Union soldiers arrive to prepare her for execution. Aiken reiterates he obtained the writ, however the Union soldier shows Aiken the rejection by President Andrew Johnson allowing the execution to proceed and Mary Surratt and three other conspirators are hung. The movie ends with Surratt’s son John in jail and calling for Aiken, who at this point has left law practice, tells him to keep his mother’s crucifix as Aiken has been “more of a son to her than I ever was.”

Execution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt, conspirators of Abraham Lincoln assassination, on July 7, 1865 at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. 1 photographic print on stereo card
Execution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt, conspirators of Abraham Lincoln assassination, on July 7, 1865 at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. 1 photographic print on stereo card | Source

Review: The American Film Company is off to a grand start with this, their first film. If future productions are equally as true to history they should be around for years to come and could become required material for historical education. That being said, sure, there were a few historical inaccuracies such as Aiken being portrayed as the only counsel Mary Surratt had when in fact she was also represented by attorney John Clampitt, the over the top bit at the very end of the movie with the interchange between Aiken and Surratt’s son John while he is in prison and quite a few inferences to our modern post-9/11 world, but all in all you got the story, what happened and how it ended with some entertainment tossed in as well.

Frederick Aiken is not well known and there is not a lot of history about him, so it is assumed that some of his actions and history are invented, but that is not reinventing what is known, which I take offense against. I have also read a few other reviews and most said the film was stiff. I think it was stiff only if you were looking for the same sort of mindless stuff that is used to entertain the masses these days. I personally found the story riveting (even though I obviously knew the outcome) and engaging. I enjoyed that it didn’t steer off into some mindless fluff or invent some crazy sub-plot to make it more entertaining. It came across exactly like it was supposed to, in my humble opinion.

That being said I agree with about 90% of the other reviews I read in that the part of Nicholas Baker played by Justin Long could have easily vanished and probably would have made it a better film. He added nothing and I think his role as the “Mac” guy on TV was a distraction by casting him in this film. One big plus is that they were able to cast some very good actors that really enhanced the riveting storyline. Kevin Kline took what could have been an otherwise flat Edwin Stanton and turned him into a thought provoking character. Robin Wright did a fine job portraying Mary Surratt. Again, some reviews called her performance flat. I think she did a perfect job or portraying a woman from the 19th century in her demeanor and attitude.

Evaluation: With just a few minor historical “liberties”, a great plot, very good acting and directing and some great historical consultants (including noted Civil War historian James M. McPherson) “The Conspirator is not only an exciting and visually appealing film but is one that gives the viewer a look into one of the most important periods in our nation’s history and how those people handled an event of this magnitude.


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