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<i>The Conspirator</i>: Those Who Don’t Learn From History…

Did you know that John Wilkes Booth didn't act alone? That even as he shot Abraham Lincoln, he had accomplices making their own unsuccessful strikes on the Vice President and the Secretary of State? You didn't? Well, now you do. So, unless you want to learn more about what a kangaroo court looked like in 1865, or how bitter things were between Northerners and Southerners in the dwindling days of the Civil War, there's really no other reason to see The Conspirator. Unless, of course, you need yet another object lesson about how no matter the progress we make, history tends to repeat itself.

James McAvoy plays the Union war hero Frederick Aiken, who returns to practicing law after the cessation of major hostilities and is appointed by his boss, Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), to represent the lone female defendant in the Lincoln assassination trial. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) may be innocent, since she only ran the boarding house where Booth and his cronies met, but her son is believed to be an accomplice, as well, and is the only one yet to be found. So while Aiken has no sympathy for those who did the crime, he reluctantly comes to see that he has a duty to give her a fair trial, especially once he realizes that the military tribunal is anything but open-minded. The story of the trial is certainly interesting, but clearly the movie was made because of the parallels between the treatment of Surratt and how the U.S. is currently treating terrorists as prisoners of war. Whether they have a point or not, there's a lot of arguing and speechifying about the rights of Americans, and what we fought for, and it can all be a little too much, not to mention incredibly similar to other period trial movies where the rights of men were still being defined (think Amistad). They say that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but I say they're doomed to watch preachy movies about it.

The cast of the film is... pretty impressive. Wright milks the Surratt role heavily, playing the self-sacrificing, hunger-striking proud Southern mother for all its worth, but she also does a good job of walking the line of her innocence. Kevin Kline is also a bit dramatic as the conviction-seeking Secretary of War, and Danny Huston is dramatic on purpose as the theatrically evil prosecuting attorney. (His lawyerly overacting in the courtroom is almost as funny as the peanut gallery's numerous and audible "harrumphs.") Justin Long and James Badge Dale provide some comedy as Aiken's army buddies, who are also lawyers, while Alexis Bledel isn't too annoying as Aiken's fiancee and Evan Rachel Wood isn't bad at all as Surratt's worried daughter. Stephen Root, Jonathan Groff, Norman Reedus and Colm Meaney have smaller parts, as does Toby Kebbell, who sadly doesn't get to do nearly enough as John Wilkes Booth (they shot him on sight). It's too bad history didn't give Booth a trial -- it almost makes you wish the film was less historically accurate, and Booth had lived to face justice in a court of law.

Did you see The Conspirator? Tell us what you thought below, then see the movie's secret connections to JFK. And read more movie reviews here!

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