“The most fascinating aspect” of Robert Redford‘s The Conspirator (which won’t have its TIFF press screening until Sunday) “is the historical resonance of the story it tells,” writes L.A. Times columnist Patrick Goldstein. “After Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed, America was traumatized, much as it was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And as the film makes clear, the 1865 War Department, run by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), is determined to quench the country’s thirst for vengeance, even if that means bending the law and sending a seemingly innocent woman to the gallows.

Robin Wright Penn, James McAvoy in Robert Redford’s The Conspirator.

“It’s not a pretty picture, certainly no prettier a picture than the one showing terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay prisons, some held under the flimsiest of pretexts, many without access to proper legal protections.

In an L.A. Times interview with critic Betsy Sharkey, Redford “backpedaled” about the historical parallels to today, saying it was “up to the audience” to decide how to interpret the story. But I think he’s being way too cautious. What makes the film stick in your mind isn’t so much its depiction of Civil War-era strife as its unsettling relationship to many of the events in modern-day America, which has struggled to retain its ideals while battling the scourge of terrorism.

“If anyone is going to want to buy this film and put it into multiplexes, it won’t just be because they’re impressed by Robin Wright Penn‘s performance as Mary Surratt, the first woman ever executed by the United States government. It will be because they see a film whose story is loaded with reminders that if we cannot remember the past, we are condemned to repeat it. ”