Robert Redford’s intriguing historical drama The Conspirator brings to light an overlooked episode from America’s past but clearly intends to shine a torch on the present-day US as well.

The film’s setting is post-Civil War Washington in 1865 but could just as easily be the aftermath of 9/11. The US is reeling from a terrorist outrage – the assassination of President Lincoln – and the government doesn’t care what legal and constitutional short cuts it takes to steady the nation and quench its thirst for revenge.

James McAvoy’s rookie lawyer Frederick Aiken does care, though. The film’s liberal conscience, he’s a Union war hero who is assigned against his will to defend one of the alleged conspirators behind Lincoln’s assassination, Robin Wright’s boarding-house owner and Southern sympathiser Mary Surratt. As Kevin Kline’s ruthless Secretary of War tries to railroad a verdict through a military tribunal, the spectre of Guantánamo Bay isn’t far away.

Some viewers will probably feel that Redford is being overly preachy, but the parallels he draws between then and now are undeniably fascinating. The night of Lincoln’s killing is vividly staged and the subsequent courtroom drama is both gripping and enraging. A history lesson, yes, but a valuable one.

On general release from 1st July.


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