In Robert Redford’s The Conspirator — a film centered around Abraham Lincoln’s death and the subsequent trial of Mary Surratt for her alleged role in his assassination — this particular historical tale is brought to vibrant life. As James Solomon (one of The Conspirator’s writers) has said: “History isn’t a bunch of facts…it’s emotion.” Emotion saturates The Conspirator, which is not only an historical drama, but a complex narrative about motherhood, family, loyalty, fairness.
As the film begins, Fred Aiken (James McAvoy), a Captain for the Union army, is wounded and lying on a battlefield strewn with dead and injured soldiers. He survives, becomes a lawyer in post-Civil War Washington, and is romantically linked with Sara Weston (Alexis Bledel). While Fred attends a reception with his army buddies, John Wilkes Booth and his crew set in motion their plan to kill President Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward.
This tense, violent scene is fraught with realistic detail. One of Booth’s cohorts backs out of his attack on Johnson; a vicious stabbing of Seward fails to kill him; and after shooting Lincoln, Booth leaps onto the stage at Ford’s Theater and shouts “The South is avenged!” to an astonished crowd.
While Lincoln lingers in the hours before his death, his stoic Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), is determined to keep order in a city that has been shattered by confusion and fear. Suspects are rounded up, but one cannot be found: John Surratt (Johnny Simmons), the 21-year old son of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a widow who owns a boarding house known to have been patronized by Booth and his crew. John Surratt is revealed as a courier and spy for the Confederacy, and because he has evaded capture, Mary is arrested in his place. It seems that someone must pay, and anyone will do.
Mary is accused of having a role in Lincoln’s assassination and of aiding and abetting her son and the other “conspirators”. She is initially represented by Senator Reverdy Johnson, a former attorney general who is Fred’s mentor. Johnson views Mary’s military trial as “an atrocity”, and after the first day of proceedings in a dark, smoky courtroom run by a commission that is clearly and unapologetically biased, he turns the case over to Fred. Mary “needs a Yankee”, the Senator declares in his thick Southern accent.
But Fred is indignant. He’s a patriotic and loyal Northerner, a former soldier for the Union, and an idealistic young attorney who is certain of Mary’s guilt. Still, he has a job to do. He meets Mary in her dungeon-like cell, looks at her disgustedly and treats her with disdain. Mary also seems to have serious doubts about the 27-year-old Fred, who can barely admit that he has never before defended a case such as this. As the trial progresses, however, Mary opens up to Fred and they begin to see each other differently. Fred also sees that powerful people such as Edwin Stanton are out for blood instead of justice, that there is prevalent religious discrimination against Mary’s Catholic faith, and that “abandoning the Constitution” by giving her a military trial “is not the answer.”
The Conspirator is rather heavy-handed in its political stance, but it raises important issues that have a direct link to the current debate over whether terror suspects should face military trials. Furthermore, it excels in humanizing, in the most immediate sense, these figures otherwise relegated to history books. There’s so much more to Mary’s refusal to turn against her son than her opinion of Lincoln and her allegiance to the Confederacy. As she asks Fred, “Have you ever cared for something greater than yourself?”
Mary’s maternal instincts drive her to the ultimate sacrifice, and Robin Wright portrays this multi-layered character with skill, depicting Mary as often vulnerable yet inherently strong. Mary’s interactions with Fred and their feelings toward each other are ever-changing, and they clash even as they come to a mutual respect. Scottish actor James McAvoy inhabits Fred’s character with ease, right down to his rookie fumbles in the courtroom and his crisp Yankee accent. Fred grows throughout the story, transforming from a naïve young attorney to a man who, though shunned by society and even his girlfriend, stands by his belief that truth is more important than revenge. “Why did I fight for the Union if my rights aren’t preserved?” he asks.
There are other exceptional performances in The Conspirator, including the remarkably versatile Kevin Kline, and Evan Rachel Wood as Mary’s daughter, Anna. Anna is a victim and a truly sympathetic character whose innocent infatuation with John Wilkes Booth is used to build a case against her family. She’s torn between loyalty to her brother and saving her mother, and Wood handles the nuances of this character brilliantly. She and Wright bring intense emotion to the mother-daughter relationship, and their final scene together is heartbreaking.
This scene takes place in Mary’s cell, which—like the courtroom—is dim but filled with thin streams of hazy sunlight. Although candles, kerosene lamps and natural light bring authenticity to the film’s time period, they might also be symbolic. Mary and Fred constantly squint into the rare sunlight, as if they’re hoping it will lead them out of the darkness. It’s in these small details that director Redford effectively creates the setting, and it’s through The Conspirator’s characters that this piece of history is told on a level that feels immediately, painfully real.
The DVD contains five hours of special features, including interviews with Redford, writer James Solomon, and The Conspirator’s cast; information about the meticulous process involved in recreating 1860s Washington; and an in-depth documentary about Mary Surratt and the assassination of President Lincoln. This entertaining and informative documentary should be of interest to anyone, but will especially be of use to educators. Bizarre and chilling facts surrounding the events and the era are presented, including the public’s habit of setting up concession stands at public executions, where spectators enjoyed lemonade and pound cake. The documentary also answers many questions that are left unanswered by the film, such as why William Seward was bed-ridden at the time of his attempted assassination and what became of John Surratt.