A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this Robert Redford-directed historical drama centers on the assassination of President Lincoln and its aftermath -- specifically, the real-life trial of Mary Surratt, who was accused of being part of the plot. Playing out largely as a courtroom drama, the movie uses history to explore the conflict between justice and politics and offers plenty to talk and think about. There’s some violence (including blood from fatal wounds, a vicious knife attack, and the frank depiction of a hanging), drinking, and smoking, as well as mild, period-accurate swearing ("s--t," "damned," etc.).
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What's the story?
That Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is a patriot is no great mystery. A decorated Civil War hero, he was the type of man who stepped up to the proverbial plate time and again. But even he can’t escape unscathed from his next mission: Defend the sole female accused in the murder of president Abraham Lincoln, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). She ran the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators met, but exactly how much did she know? Is she as innocent as she claims? As Surratt’s appointed defense counsel, Aiken feels he has no choice but to perform the job to the best of his duties, even if it earns him the scorn of fellow citizens still reeling from the assassination of the commander-in-chief. But ultimately Mary's case leads him to question his own prejudices, too.
Is it any good?
Although it was directed by film icon Robert Redford, THE CONSPIRATOR belongs to James McAvoy, who convincingly inhabits the role of Aiken. The war hero was given the thankless task of defending the woman charged with plotting Lincoln's assassination, and McAvoy portrays him as both determined and ambivalent, sometimes at the same exact time. Always subtle in her portrayals, Wright makes Surratt approachable and, in turn, sympathetic. (And, also frustrating -- why wouldn’t she cooperate with the authorities?) But Wright’s depiction is cold, and we don’t ever quite forget that this is an actress playing Surratt.
But the film’s biggest flaw isn’t the acting, costumes, or lighting. It’s that it's curiously slack for a being a courtroom thriller. That the facts of the case have long been known may have somewhat hobbled the momentum -- we know how this story ends, after all. But that’s no excuse for predictable storytelling and scenes lit so brightly you wonder whether the camera broke at some point, leading to overexposure. That said, The Conspirator is still engrossing -- and moving. It's fascinating to be able to see how events unfolded that fateful night.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Mary Surratt’s case. Do you think she was guilty? Do you think she received a fair trial and a just sentence?
How closely do you think this film adheres to history? How many liberties with the facts do you think such a film can take? Why might filmmakers decide to do that?
What are the movie's messages? What does it say about the American justice system? Do you think anything similar could happen today?
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