Robert Redford's The Conspirator dramatizes the military trial of Mary Suratt, a boarding house owner accused of harboring conspirators and being involved in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. It is a strong, if somewhat obvious, drama that depicts the mood of hysteria that followed the assassination, and suggests its relevance to today's politics. Written by James Solomon who spent fourteen years researching the story, the film opens with a brief introduction showing the agony of combat troops in the Civil War, then focuses on the assassination of the President on April 14, 1865 by actor John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell), a Southern partisan and his companions Lewis Payne (Norman Reedus), David Herold (Marcus Hester), and Samuel Arnold (Jeremy Tuttle) at the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C..
Stealthily entering the President's box, Booth shoots Lincoln in the head, then leaps onto the stage shouting "sic semper tyrannis" (thus always to tyrants), and escapes on horseback. The assassination results in an outpouring of grief all over the country, and prompts the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) to vow revenge against the conspirators. After a two week search, Booth is found hiding in a nearby barn and shot to death, while seven suspected co-conspirators are arrested including Mary Suratt. Suratt is tried by a military tribunal where the rules state that only a majority vote is required for a guilty verdict and a two-thirds vote is needed to sentence a defendant to death. It is a court where a defendant is prohibited from testifying in their own defense.
Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) from Virginia and a former U. S. Attorney General agrees to defend Suratt on the grounds that she is innocent until proved guilty. The Senator, however, withdraws because he fears that being a Southerner might prejudice his case, and asks Frederick Aiken (James McEvoy), a northern attorney to defend her. Initially reluctant and dubious about her story, Aiken resolves to prove her innocence after seeing that the defendant was up against an overbearing prosecutor (Danny Huston), a biased head of the tribunal (Colm Meany), and the behind-the-scenes antagonism of Secretary Stanton.
At great cost to his personal life, Aiken tries to prove that Ms. Suratt knew the boarders who lived in her house, but was not involved in their conspiracy. As the case progresses, it becomes apparent that only her son John (Johnny Simmons), a known conspirator who fled to Canada, can save his mother by surrendering. While there is limited dimension to the characters, The Conspirator is true to the historical record and the film presents its message in a clear and powerful way. Redford, long a champion of civil liberties, implicitly reminds us that the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution expressly guarantees that "no person shall be deprived of life without due process of law" and provides no exception for war.
It is not only an important message for those unfamiliar with our nation's history, but is strikingly relevant to the present day in which hundreds of detainees at Guantanamo still languish in prison without trial, where a U.S. citizen, suspected of terrorist activities, is targeted for an assassination attempt without having been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crime, and where the ideal of due process and the presumption of innocence is slowly being replaced by unlimited violence, the repudiation of legality, and the undermining of democracy.