The Conspirator (2010) PG-13

This is a court drama about the case of Mary Surratt, the only woman convicted in the conspiracy plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln and some of his cabinet members.  The key legal issue at hand was Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus during wartime, which allowed the accused to be tried in a military court instead of a civilian one.  Military proceedings typically have far fewer civil rights for the accused than civilian ones.  The main character is Frederick Aiken, a defense attorney who tries to uphold Surratt’s rights to a fair trail amidst the righteous anger of a military tribunal in haste to avenge the loss of its beloved leader.  The film has a reasonably accurate depiction of the Lincoln assassination and the events that followed.  It portrays the mixed feelings of Southerners living in the North during the War and adequately explains the motives and actions of the conspirators.  

The drama surrounding how much the accused are willing to reveal and their attempts to clear their names is well played.  The actors look a lot like the people they are portraying. A great deal of controversy exists over the guilt or innocence of Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the US Government.  Volumes have been written depicting her as everything from an innocent bystander, victim of gender discrimination, to a key conspirator who was very complicit in the plot being hatched at her boardinghouse.  This film shows her as possibly being guilty but focuses on the alleged illegality of her trial.

The film has no sexual content whatsoever, and very little profanity. The violence depicted is relevant to the story such as the portrayal of battle scenes, Booth’s capture and the hanging of the convicted conspirators.  None of it is depicted in an overly graphic manner.  

The DVD has a special features section that includes a documentary about the case that is helpful for learning the background of the story and seeing where the film varied from actual events.  There a only a few minor historical errors in the film mostly having to do with the lighting of the sets for nighttime scenes and other minor details of Lincoln’s assassination.  One major difference is in the capture of Surratt’s son John.  In the film, it appears that he is captured on US soil, when in reality he fled the country and lived in many different places until he was captured in Egypt.

The civil rights message of the film is a bit overdone for the context of time period and comes across as a bit preachy.  Perhaps it is a subtle reference to today’s controversies regarding trying accused terrorists in military courts.  However, the film does a good job of exploring the issues considered by the Supreme Court regarding trials of civilians in military courts as in Ex Parte Milligan.  This is a difficult subject that may not otherwise capture the interest of modern students, so the film is helpful in that manner.  This film is useful for a high school US History or Government class, but is not recommended for younger audiences because of the complexity of the legal matters discussed.  It may also be too long to show in its entirety.

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