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The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

Overzealous acting, murder re-enactment conspire to make true courtroom story dry

Capt. Frederick Aiken, played by James McAvoy, gets convincing from former attorney general Reverdy Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson, that it is truly American to defend Mary Surrat, who is tried in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in The Conspirator.
Photo courtesy Lionsgate

By Joshua Knopp/managing editor

 

When tragedy results in a government running about like a headless chicken, there’s no telling who it will hang.

The Conspirator tells the story of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who owned the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) met with alleged conspirators multiple times leading to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Surratt is charged as a conspirator and reluctantly defended by Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union Army captain. Surratt, a civilian, is tried in a military tribunal, facing a judge advocate general and a military commission instead of a regular attorney and a jury of her peers. She is found guilty on shaky evidence and becomes the first woman executed by the United States.

The Conspirator is yet another film that feels the need to re-enact the infamous killing of Lincoln. For half an hour of a movie about a lesser-known co-conspirator, the president remains stubbornly un-shot. Even small details of the assassination are common knowledge and a well-trod path in cinema. A courtroom movie shouldn’t take the scenic route to get to the courtroom.

After the president is killed, the cast steps up to further turn the audience off. McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson and Danny Huston vomit patriotism to the point that this reviewer was left asking, “Is an event of even this historical magnitude really this big of a deal?”

Or, this nauseating over-drama could be the entire point of the film. While studies that attempt to measure patriotism statistically have found fairly consistently that the most patriotic population is one whose country is at war, the eyeball test finds that the most patriotic population is the one that is currently going through a witch hunt after a national tragedy.

The no-win situation Surratt is placed in is remarkably similar to the Salem Witch Trials 170 years earlier during which 19 women were executed for witchcraft. The evidence brought against them included feeding rye cake mixed with victims’ urine to dogs on the theory that it could cause physical pain to the attacking witch and the discovery of horoscope books in the homes of the accused.

The overzealous melodrama presented by McAvoy and company harkens back to late 2001 when, if a public figure could maintain his composure when discussing the Sept. 11 attacks, he obviously wasn’t a true patriot.

Perhaps the absurd acting is intended to make pundits from the time look back and think, “Wow, is that what we sounded like?”

It could also just be absurd acting.

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