a film review
by Jeanne Powell
Robert Redford has produced a spectacular historical film, sure to garner multiple Academy Award nominations.
The conspirator in the film title is a noncombatant and a woman, the first woman to be executed by the federal government. More than 500 women and girls were hanged for crimes in various North American colonies, territories and states between 1632 and 1937. Mrs. Surratt was the first to be convicted by a military tribunal.
Mary Surratt is a widow and mother who runs a boardinghouse and owns other real estate in the Washington, D.C. area. Several of her boarders turn out to be the men who kill President Abraham Lincoln, plan to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson, and seriously wound Secretary of State William Seward in April 1865.
Coming up this month are the anniversaries of the Civil War victory and of the murder of President Lincoln three days later. That there was a conspiracy to cripple the U.S. government in 1865 is not in doubt. Whether Mary Surratt was involved, or just protecting her adult son, is unclear even today. What is clear, however, is that the United States was still a new nation, less than a century old, and had been torn apart by a bloody Civil War. While General Ulysses Grant receives Robert Lee's surrender on behalf of the southern rebels, 20 rebel armies still remain in the field. When President Lincoln is assassinated, the capitol city and the nation are thrown into a frenzy of fear. Radical Republicans in Congress wave the "bloody shirt" and seek revenge on the southern states which committed treason by seceding from the Union. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wants the murderous conspirators caught, tried, convicted and hanged -- not necessarily in that order.
In this setting of fear and chaos, director Robert Redford introduces us to the main characters. James McAvoy is moving and convincing as the battle-scarred veteran (Frederick Aiken) who simply wants to practice law and marry his sweetheart. Suddenly he is asked to be second chair in the defense of Mary Surratt. Aiken has seen his comrades die in four years of a brutal Civil War. Wounded twice in battle, he experiences the shock of his president and commander-in-chief being cut down by assassins. He believes Surratt to be guilty and does not wish to defend her.
Robin Wright gives a fine performance as the widow Mary Surratt, who describes herself as "a southerner, a Catholic and a devoted mother." It is as a mother that Surratt fights against her attorney, even at the risk of her own life. Wright portrays her as strong and independent, having survived marriage to a drunkard and raised children. How Surratt and her attorney Aiken slowly establish communication and trust is at the heart of this powerful film.
The other conflict swirls around the Secretary of War, well played by Kevin Kline. America is at war, in the most devastating kind of hostility, a nation divided against itself. Secretary of War Stanton does not want to leave anything to chance. Enemies of the state must be hunted down and punished. The Constitution itself must be suspended, in order to save it, or so it seems. Should a civilian be tried by a military court? It is more than a year after Surratt's execution before the Supreme Court issues a decision on that question.
How Frederick Aiken defends Mary Surratt under these impossible conditions, and why Secretary of War Edwin Stanton feels the nation must be protected from further chaos at all costs, set the stage for this stunning film.
Robert Redford skillfully directs from a script by James Solomon. Solomon began writing "The Conspirator" in 1993; he came to screenwriting after a career as a journalist. His script is well researched, beginning with his reading of the actual transcripts of Surratt's trial by the military tribunal. The producers took the extraordinary step of hiring historians to double check the facts and to help set the visuals.
Special credit goes to production designer Kalina Ivanov, costume designer Louise Frogley and director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel for their ensemble work. It turns out that the city of Savannah GA is a good match for 1865 Washington. General Sherman was able to spare that city during the Civil War, so it retains much of the original architecture of the period. Says Kalina Ivanov, "Everything in our film is gaslight or kerosene or candlelight. Everything is organic to the period."
A brief turn by Evan Rachel Wood as Anna Surratt, daughter of the conspirator, holds your attention. Anna is placed under house arrest by the federal government during her mother's trial. She is called upon to make a hard choice, one which places Anna in conflict with her mother, and Wood recreates that torment vividly.
The shock of the well-planned conspiracy. The drama of hunting and capturing the assassins. The intensity of the courtroom scenes. Civil War veteran Frederick Aiken asks: "Why did I fight for the Union if my rights are not assured?" Secretary of War Edwin Stanton says: "To ensure the survival of this nation, I would do anything." Regardless of your perspective, you will come away from this film with appreciation for the subject matter and how well it is handled.
Causes Jeanne Powell Supports
Union of Concerned Scientists, VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against War), Doctors Without Borders, Waterkeeper Alliance, PSR (Physicians for Social Responsibility...