The Conspirator

For this film review I will be sharing my thoughts on The Conspirator which is based on the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the trial that followed. In this post I will discuss three aspects dealing with the film.

The movie itself and its accuracy.

The value of the movie as a pedagogical tool.

How it relates to American History classrooms.  

What’s the movie have to offer?

Whenever there is a “historical” movie that is released to the public there are immediate criticisms that come about because of the weight that each film holds in telling the story of a historical event. Is Hollywood going to take over and present a romanticized version?  Or are the filmmakers going to let the evidence and facts do most of the talking?

Robert Redford, in my opinion does both with his film. Just like any industry out there trying to sell a product, the creators have to present their buyers with a product that is going to sell and bring in a profit. Redford does just that by allowing a fantasized reality hold an equal amount of weight in the story line. What’s one way to get most women invested in a plot? Throw in a romantic relationship that is intriguing. How about the fact that slavery is not mentioned except for the time it is referred to as “the cause”. Sure it would be a different world if we could go back in time and leave out slavery as easily as Redford did. It may not have been his focus of the movie but it was a significant part of American history.

In the same regard there are many moments in the film that do hold some historical accuracy. The presentation of the actual assassination of Lincoln was attention grabbing and realistic. Considering the movie was focused around the events following this moment in history, it only makes sense to direct a scene that is as accurate as possible. During the court room scenes the dialogue that takes place also gives the audience a glimpse into what was actually said during the trial. Although it is hard to accurately portray the emotions and mood in the room and try and recreate that, Redford does a decent job getting those feelings across.

How in the world do you use this?

Films in the classroom are always a tricky situation. Students love them but they do not always do the historical event they are trying to tell justice. In the film The Conspirator, there is a fine line with how it should be used in a classroom. On the film’s website there are many resources that educators could use to add value to what the movie has to offer alone. Some of the materials include possible lesson plan activities that teachers can take advantage of whether they use it for the film or incorporate other topics into it. Some of the activities include, mock trial, evaluating historical quotes, analyzing historical documents and how they relate to modern times, and large group discussions. 

One thing about these lesson plans that I like is there is some variety to what students will be doing and it also builds on the days prior. These activities also emphasize the relevance to today’s culture. Maybe one of the motivating factors behind the creation of this movie was to bring up questions on whether or not things like this happen still?

As we have been reading the book Teaching U.S. History as Mystery, there is now a reminder in the back of mind on whether or not certain resources could be used to present history as a mystery. I do think that, if used correctly, this film could do just that. I do not think it is necessary to use the entire film in class but I think there is some value in certain scenes. This film could be used in stages to first present the back story, then parts of the trial, and lastly to reveal the outcome of the movie. Obviously as the facilitator there is a responsibility to help students come to a conclusion on their own rather than give them the answer by showing the end of the movie without any critical thinking. Whether or not it is this film or another, there is the potential for use in a classroom setting.

Can this only be used to talk about the assassination?

The Conspirator has the potential to be used in a way that could open the door to many other historical themes and concepts. Slavery, treatment of women, the role of women, the power of the government, and the influence of media are just a few examples that could be touch upon. The movie as a whole is very narrowly focused but with the right questions it could be opened up to many other things going on in that time period. Overall I think this movie has the potential to tie in the events prior and set up what is to come following the assassination and Civil War.

Ultimately, I feel as though this movie could be a useful teaching tool as long as it is used in the right context. It may not be my first choice but if it is all that you have then there are many opportunities to use it in a way that will benefit the students being taught.

Sarah McDavid

Appalachian State University


The Conspirator. Directed by Robert Redford. Lions Gate Films, 2011. Film.

Gerwin, David, and Jack Zevin. Teaching U.S. History as Mystery. 2 edition. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Gross, Terry, and David Edelstein. “Movie Review – ‘The Conspirator’ – A Trying Trial For Lincoln’s Foes : NPR.” NPR, April 12, 2011.

Grossman, James. “Historians and The Conspirator: Using Film to Ask Big Questions.” American Historical Association, April 13, 2011.

Lane, Anthony. “Casualties of War.” The New Yorker, April 18, 2011.

“Movie: The Conspirator.” The Conspirator Directed by Robert Redford. Accessed October 15, 2015.