Happy 146th anniversary, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination! In your honor we have prepared a didactic but not entirely unenjoyable historical drama called “The Conspirator”!
Everyone knows Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, a disgruntled Confederate actor who chose the worst possible manner in which to interrupt a play. What many of us may have forgotten since high school, however, is that the assassination was part of a larger conspiracy that included plans to kill the vice president and secretary of state at the same time. (Sec. of State William H. Seward was attacked but not killed, while the man assigned to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson got drunk and chickened out.) A woman named Mary Surratt was charged with participating in the plot. “The Conspirator” dramatizes her trial, and does so with approximately the same mix of potent courtroom bombshells and ham-fisted point-making as an episode of “Law & Order.”
Except for the costumes and speech patterns, this could be any big-screen legal thriller, right down to the reluctant lawyer who defends the indefensible out of principle. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a devout Catholic whose son was friends with Booth, is arrested along with seven other alleged conspirators, some more obviously guilty than she. She ran a boardinghouse, and parts of the conspiracy — with which her son was almost certainly involved — were hatched there. The question is whether Surratt knew about it.
Do not be misled, though — the story is really about the lawyers. Our hero is 28-year-old Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a former Union soldier who’s now working for a U.S. senator, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Surratt and the others are to be tried in a military court, where there is no presumption of innocence, where the prosecution (i.e., the military) doesn’t have to supply the defense with a witness list, and where the defendant can be barred from testifying in his or her own defense. The judge and jury are Union soldiers. Sen. Johnson believes Surratt is entitled to a lawyer like anyone else (the Constitution backs him up on that), and assigns young Aiken to defend her.
Aiken isn’t a fan of the idea. In post-assassination Washington, there is vociferous hatred toward anyone even suspected of being a Confederate sympathizer. As far as many people are concerned, the fact that Surratt is on trial is proof enough of her guilt. Sen. Johnson comes under suspicion for insisting that the Constitution be followed. Why, come to think of it, he represents Maryland, a state that wasn’t 100% loyal to the Union during the war. Hmmm, say the people looking for things to be suspicious about. Aiken, just starting his career, faces a loss of social standing, and wonders what his fiancee, Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel), will think of him for defending an anti-American monster like Surratt.
If the parallels between this situation and the treatment of post-9/11 terrorism suspects aren’t already obvious, the film ensures that they quickly become so. The government, represented by grim Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), considers the assassination plot to be an act of war, hence the military trial instead of a civil one. Stanton and his fellows keep the public riled up by reminding them that Surratt’s son, John Surratt (Jonny Simmons), is still on the loose, and could reappear at any moment to perpetrate as-yet-unknown heinous acts with any number of as-yet-unknown co-conspirators. Sen. Johnson calls it fear-mongering. “This is a frightened country!” he says. “You don’t need to frighten the people any more.”
The screenplay, written by John D. Solomon, produced by the newly formed American Film Company, and directed by Robert Redford with his usual glossy earnestness, is fraught with dialogue like that. When the Army is accused of mistreating the prisoners while they await trial, Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) is incensed. “How dare you accuse me of savagery!” he bellows. “Have you forgotten how our prisoners were treated by the Rebels?!” Those calling for calm and reason are considered unpatriotic for saying things like “In our grief let us not become an Inquisition.” Meanwhile, outside the fort where the trial is being held, hyper-patriotic citizens prove their loyalty by purchasing Lincoln memorabilia, the 1860s equivalent of flag decals for your pickup truck.
And in the meantime, Aiken starts to wonder if his client might actually be innocent, caught in a dragnet cast too wide in the scramble to find people to blame. Most of the evidence against Surratt is circumstantial, and the government doesn’t really want her anyway: they want her son, whose connection to Booth is beyond question. Surratt’s daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), may be useful as a witness in her mother’s defense. Others whose testimony would have helped exonerate her are intimidated into retracting their statements by the aggressive prosecution.
All of this may well be historically accurate. There might be more legitimate debate about Mary Surratt’s guilt or innocence than the movie suggests, but we can chalk that up to artistic license. The problem is that, accurate or not, it feels manipulated. Redford underlines his points so boldly that you start to wonder how much of the historical data has been massaged to make it fit. If the story of Mary Surratt can be instructive to our present situation, “The Conspirator” hurts its case by laying things on so thick. Once you get past the righteous indignation, though, it’s passable as entertainment: something like John Grisham by way of Harper Lee.
C (2 hrs., 3 min.; )