Robert Redford’s latest film, The Conspirator, tells the “story behind the story” of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. By now, Lincoln buffs know that this is not the story of the main conspirator and assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Instead, it focuses on Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house in Washington, D.C. where Booth and other conspirators plotted first to kidnap President Lincoln, then changed the plan to murder. The movie is based on the book The Assassin’s Accomplice, written by the historian Dr. Kate Clifford Larson.
Mary Surratt was arrested on April 17, just two days after the death of the president. She was held in solitary confinement in harsh conditions along with her co-defendants. All of the defendants were tried by military tribunal, rather than civil court, and were found guilty. Mrs. Surratt, Lewis Payne (who nearly killed Sec. of State William Seward), George Atzerodt (assigned to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson, but didn’t carry out the plan), and David Herold (Booth’s companion during the manhunt for the two) were hanged on July 7, 1865. Mary was the first woman executed by the Federal government, an act which remains controversial to this day.
The Conspirator is the first film from The American Film Company which was founded in 2008. It has the goal to produce films about events from our nation’s past. The company will use historians to assure the films depict the events accurately, unlike so many other films which omit, warp, and flat out lie about the events they purport to tell us about.
Portraying Mary Surratt in the film is Robin Wright. Wright’s performance is outstanding. She injects her character with the right blend of strength, courage, despair, and contempt, all traits that Mary Surratt showed during the trial. Thanks to makeup, styling, and costuming, Wright bears more than a slight resemblance to Surratt, which also helps to lend authenticity to her role.
James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, Mrs. Surratt’s co-counsel. Aiken was a young attorney who served in the large law firm of Reverdy Johnson, a strong Union man and personal friend of Lincoln. Johnson is portrayed by the fine actor Tom Wilkinson. McAvoy’s performance is good and shows the personal struggles Aiken had about defending a person accused of conspiracy against the president. However, his performance doesn’t match that of Wright’s.
In the days, weeks and few months after the assassination, the country was run not by the new president Andrew Johnson, but by the Secretary Of War, Edwin M. Stanton. It was Stanton who led the efforts to arrest the conspirators, track down Booth, and put into place the tribunal which tried the conspirators. Stanton is played in the film by the excellent actor Kevin Kline, who does a marvelous job portraying the anger and thirst for revenge which Stanton exhibited during those few months. It’s probably nitpicky, but Kline’s beard is not nearly long enough for him to accurately resemble Stanton, who had a long flowing beard down to his chest. I would have liked to have seen Kline have a larger role in the movie.
The Conspirator is essentially a courtroom drama. Unfortunately, the courtroom scenes are not especially dramatic and at times the movie drags. While the film makes the case that the co-defendants should have been tried in civil court and not by military tribunal, it does not explain to the viewer why they were tried in such a manner. (Lincoln’s Attorney General, Joshua Speed, one of his closest friends, made the recommendation for the tribunal, and President Johnson agreed.)
The film could have been much more dramatic and emotionally moving had director Redford chosen to depict in greater detail the maneuvers undertaken to stay (or overturn) the decision to hang Mary Surratt. In real life, her daughter Anna tried to get President Johnson to see her so she could plead to him directly for her mother’s life, but Johnson refused. Anna is portrayed effectively by Evan Rachel Wood, the excellent young actress, and such a scene would have added some “oomph” to the drama surrounding the execution.
The greatest strength of The Conspirator is by far it’s attention to historical detail. Filmed in Savannah, Georgia, the film has a great “authentic feel” to it. The courtroom and setting for the execution of Surratt and her three co-conspirators look amazingly like the photos and sketches of the actual locations from that time. Even the fact that Mrs. Surratt was shielded from the blazing sun by an umbrella the morning of her execution is included in the film. Very well done.
I felt that the film was a bit too sympathetic towards Mrs. Surratt. The casual viewer of the film may even have the opinion at its conclusion that she was guilty of nothing more than owning the house where the conspiracy took place. While historians debate even today about the degree of her guilt or innocence, it should be pointed out that the author of The Accomplice, Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, started her book thinking Mary Surratt was innocent. After her research, she reversed her own opinion and now believes in her guilt. I personally agree that Mary Surratt was deeply involved in the conspiracy. However, I am unconvinced that she should have been executed for her crimes. Her level of involvement simply was not the same as that of Lewis Payne, George Atzerodt, and David Herold, who surely received a just punishment.
The Conspirator raises an interesting question for us today, which may or not have been director Redford’s intention. It makes a case against the trying of civilians by military courts, as is happening today in the War On Terror.
I enjoyed The Conspirator far more than I expected. The political overtones weren’t as heavy as I feared they would be, nor did it portray Mary Surratt with complete sympathy as I suspected it would. The actors did a wonderful job, and Wright’s portrayal of Mary Surratt was for me a revelation of the depth of her abilities. And let’s face it: Robert Redford is a truly superb film director.
If The Conspirator is still playing in your area, I encourage you to go see it. A movie with such attention to historical detail and accuracy is seldom made.