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By Michael Calleri

The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln wasn't an isolated act, a haphazard event carried out by a deranged actor. It was well planned by John Wilkes Booth and his friends Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt, and it was part of a larger conspiracy to encourage Confederate soldiers to continue fighting the Civil War, although the Southern rebels were on the ropes.

The conspirators so despised the American government that they set out to destroy its leadership. Not only was Lincoln murdered by Booth, but that same evening Secretary of State William Seward was also attacked and almost killed by Powell, and Vice President Andrew Johnson was similarly targeted by Atzerodt, but he got drunk, got cold feet, and failed to carry out his part of the plan.

Is it any wonder that an enraged Secretary of War Edwin Stanton demanded that a severe price be paid for Lincoln's death? That price included the arrest of a woman named Mary Surratt, and it's around her actions that the new movie "The Conspirator" is centered.

Surratt ran a boardinghouse in Washington, D.C. She was a middle-aged widow whose son John was part of the conspiracy to destabilize the U.S. government. The original plan was to kidnap Lincoln so that the North would restart a prisoner-of-war exchange that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had halted. The kidnap plot was scrapped.

It was in Surratt's boardinghouse that Booth and his men then created the plan to kill Lincoln, Johnson and Seward. Although she was a Southern sympathizer, Surratt may not have known what was happening under her roof.

It's a controversy that has lasted from the moment Booth fired his deadly pistol at Lincoln at Ford's Theatre. Some believe that it's ludicrous to think she didn't know what Booth was planning. Others consider her complicit only in that she provided food and shelter to the plotters but believe she truly did not know what was being discussed.

The film, methodically directed by Robert Redford and carefully written by James D. Solomon, tries to weave a mystery out of Surratt's innocence or guilt.

The mystery idea is a little bit weak, but what is strong about the movie are the early passions involved as Surratt is excoriated by an angry government and also by a prosecutor who himself seems to be part of his own conspiracy, one calculated to find her guilty with or without real proof.

Secretary of War Stanton demands retribution every chance he can. Northerners are convinced Surratt is evil. If found guilty, she will be hanged.

A U.S. senator from Maryland believes she is innocent and is prepared to defend her. He is so verbally abused for his stand that he resigns. But Surratt must have a lawyer; this is America, after all.

Because the trial is actually a military tribunal, it makes sense to the government that a young Union war hero, Frederick Aiken, should defend Surratt. He firmly believes in her guilt and would rather not take the case, but as time passes he becomes more and more interested in the possibility that she really didn't know about Booth's scheme.

Redford doesn't take a stand as to Surratt's guilt or innocence, and if he has a point of view, it's that a rush to judgment is a dangerous threat to civil discourse. It's clear that he's opposed to a mob mentality. Redford so believes in the inherent right to a fair and honest trial that the tension he should be ratcheting up slowly dissipates. Instead of building the trial into something powerful, Redford delivers what is essentially a civics lesson.

That doesn't make the movie a failure, but it sure dilutes the drama. After all, this is about a murder of the most heinous kind and a trial that riveted the nation. The U.S. government was in genuine peril, and civil rights for all American citizens were certainly set back for generations.

"The Conspirator" has many plusses.

Production values are top-notch. I don't know what 1865 smelled and felt like, but you really believe you are experiencing the times. We have photographs of the era, and Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography is outstanding, capturing the look of a city and the sense of a people in turmoil.

The acting is exceptional by most of the cast, especially Robin Wright as Surratt, James McAvoy as Aiken, Tom Wilkinson as the Maryland senator, Kevin Kline as Stanton, Danny Huston as the prosecutor, Johnny Simmons and Evan Rachel Wood as Surratt's son and daughter, and a number of good performers in small but believable roles.

As much as I like Justin Long as an actor with a nice, light comic touch, he is woefully miscast in this period drama.

Redford certainly has a respect for history. There are nice details in his film.

He clouds things by making us experience his lecture about what he sees are parallels to a threat to legal rights in the United States after 9/11. It's here that we feel as if we're in school listening to a stern teacher.

OK, the guy has a message and he wants to be fair to Surratt. Honestly, it seems a little bit odd to criticize him for being fair about a person involved in one of the country's darkest events.

Frankly, what I really wanted to know is this: Does Redford think Surratt was innocent or guilty? I wish he had told us through his movie.

Sometimes it's better not to go home again.

Director Wes Craven revisits his "Scream" legacy with "Scream 4," but nothing about the new movie is important or different enough to make seeing it worthwhile.

Ghostface is back, as are some of the key characters, including those played by Neve Campbell (who has no acting career), David Arquette (who is squandering his career), and Courtney Cox (who needs television for a career).

The lesser characters are all hip to horror movies, but we already know this, having seen installments one through three.

Watching "Scream 4" is like watching your grandparents get drunk at a wedding and try to French-kiss the bride and groom. It's sad and unpleasant.

E-mail Michael Calleri at michaelcallerimoviesnfr@yahoo.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 19, 2011