Robert Redford’s The Conspirator is in part the story of Mary Surratt, who in 1865 was tried and convicted in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. She ultimately became the first woman to be executed by the United States federal government. Although she owned the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and several other people – including her son, also named John – were accused of hatching a scheme to first kidnap then murder Lincoln, it’s unknown how directly involved she was, and it remains a source of controversy to this day. Immediately after the assassination, her son fled to Canada and was given sanctuary by Father Charles Boucher, a Catholic priest. He remained there for the duration of his mother’s trial and execution; after fleeing to Europe and then to Egypt, he was finally brought back to the U.S. in 1867. At that point, the statute of limitations had expired on most of his charges, and he was ultimately set free.
The focus of the film isn’t so much the trial, although it is in all respects a courtroom drama. It’s also not about family bonds, but given her protective instincts, it’s clear that Surratt valued her son’s life much more than her own. What the film is really about is the American legal system of that time. Surratt’s trial was a travesty; it was held at a military tribunal rather than a civilian court, which means she was not judged by a jury of her peers. So basically, she was denied her Constitutional rights. It was overseen by Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, who after the assassination was pretty much the most powerful person in Washington, despite Andrew Johnson already being sworn in as President. Stanton wanted Surratt tried and convicted quickly in order to placate the American people – and to satisfy his sense of moral outrage. It wasn’t justice he wanted, but revenge.
In the film, Surratt (Robin Wright) shows considerable restraint, even in the throes of an emotional outburst. This is not a sign of weakness but rather of profound resignation. Here is a woman who knows the cards are stacked against her; apart from the fact that she’s the mother of an accused criminal, she’s a Southerner smarting over the Confederacy’s loss of the Civil War. Essentially, she was found guilty even before the trial began. Assigned as her defense is attorney Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who, in spite of his idealistic approach to the Constitution and the rule of law, refuses to take the case, knowing his own status as a Southerner would look bad in a courtroom. He instead passes it down to a young attorney named Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union veteran.
Initially, Aiken is convinced of Surratt’s guilt and is reluctant to take the case. As the trial progresses, however, he fights harder and harder for her cause. I had to ask myself about his turnaround, since it seemed rather sudden and unprovoked. I think it finally came to me: It’s not so much about Surratt’s innocence or guilt, but the process of determining her innocence or guilt. He was taught to respect the rule of law, but now that he’s an attorney on a high-profile case, he’s realizing how easily the rules can be bent, if not altogether broken. What infuriates him is that he served the Union, which fought to uphold the very freedoms people like Mary Surratt are being refused. But he faces opposition on both ends; he believes freeing Surratt depends on discovering the whereabouts of her son and bringing him to justice. As a mother, this is something she would rather not have happen. She denies knowing where he is, although it’s fairly obvious she wouldn’t squeal even if she did know.
Was she guilty? It seems highly unlikely she wasn’t at least aware of what her son and his cohorts were planning, given the fact they regularly convened in her home. But I don’t think there’s any way to really know the extent of her involvement. What is clear is that she was not fairly tried; she was a victim of the American people, who wanted reparations for losing their beloved President.
Redford does an adequate job in his efforts to raise awareness of both the trial and its failings. Where he shows restraint is in his development of the characters, who may work well with the mechanics of the plot but aren’t given all that much depth or originality. Some contribute little if anything to the film, including Aiken’s girlfriend, Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel), and his best friend and fellow Union soldier, Nicholas Baker (Justin Long). Still, the film is engaging. The performances are decent, especially McAvoy’s, who’s not only adept at faking an American accent but can also convey the sheer frustration of his character. The visuals, a balance between the opulence and squalor of postwar America, are appropriate. Because the real focus of The Conspirator is the unjust legal system, its greatest achievement is that it’s a relatively good fit within the canon of courtroom dramas.
One of the darkest moments in American history would have to be the assassination of Pres. Abraham Lincoln. Even when I was a child, the event was taught to me as a part of grade-school history and often discussed by my father since he was a judge. It was such a tragic event that invoked the fury of a nation and affected many who had lived during that era. Robert Redford’s films have always managed tightly-woven tales of intrigue and suspense that depended on very meticulous storytelling, … more
When I went to see this movie I knew nothing about it. The trailer merely indicated a period courtroom drama starring James McAvoy. While I would hesitate to call it one of the best movies of the year, undoubtedly this movie or more precisely the story this movie relates impacted me more deeply than most do. So much so that I have bought several books on the subject to get as full an understanding of this event as possible. As an experienced director … more
The Conspirator is an historical drama that transcends its historical setting to surface some very basic ethical questions. But at the same time, it is a well-made and interesting depiction of the events surrounding the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. I have read a number of books on the subject over the years, so I was pleased to see the events portrayed with such detail and accuracy. From an historical perspective, it does a great job of depicting the political and … more
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