Robert Redford, Director
James Solomon & Gregory Bernstein, Screenwriters
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” – Benjamin Franklin.
One could change Benjamin Franklin’s quote to read as “Those who would give up civil rights to guarantee justice, deserve neither.” Injustice in the name of justice serves as the essential underpinning of The American Film Company’s debut film, “The Conspirator,” directed by Robert Redford.
“The Conspirator” is the story of the trial of Mary Surratt who was executed for her role in the conspiracy to assassinate, President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. “It is a story nobody knows wrapped up in a story that everyone knows,” says Redford.
The guilt or innocence of Mary Surratt has been debated among historians since her execution, and will continue to be. Her complicity in the assassination conspiracy is not the story that screenwriters James Solomon & Gregory Bernstein, nor director Robert Redford set out to tell, but rather they concentrate on her trial as a civilian by a military tribunal.
Robin Wright portrays a stoic Mary Surratt who has accepted her fate, the authorities of the United States government having left nothing to chance. Her silent strength certainly aids the audience in their empathy toward her. She is originally defended by Reverdy Johnson, a United States Senator from Maryland (played by the always dependable English actor Tom Wilkinson), but for whatever reason Johnson has given the job of Mrs. Surratt’s defense to his young associate, and veteran of the Union Army, Frederick Aiken.
Aiken, played by Scottish actor James McAvoy, is convinced of Mrs. Surratt’s guilt. He is at first openly hostile towards her, but as he comes to realize the fairness of the trial of his client by a military tribunal is a sham. Mrs. Surratt as the defendant is not allowed to testify on her own behalf, and there is no right to appeal. Finally he admits to a friend, “I don’t know whether she is guilty or innocent.”
The supporting cast is equally as strong as the film’s two lead actors; prosecutor Joseph Holt, played by Danny Huston; Edwin M. Stanton, United States Secretary of War, and puppet-master of the trial of the conspirators is sternly played by Kevin Kline; and Mary Surratt’s daughter Anna, played by Evan Rachel Wood, at first displays the stoicism of her mother, but gives in to waves of emotion when first her mother is convicted and then taken to the gallows to be hung for her part in the conspiracy.
Director Robert Redford and the screenwriters do not dwell on the details of the assassination conspiracy, nor the hunt for Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Neither is the subject of this movie. But instead they allude to both in montages briefly showing the assassination, and the eventual killing of Booth.
One aspect that Redford does concentrate on is the chaos in the street outside Ford’s Theater immediately following the assassination, and how they got Lincoln across the street and into the Peterson House, which I found very moving.
Of course a story about a trial of a civilian by a military tribunal is as relevant today as it was 145 years ago, and there are plenty of inferences to be made about the political agendas and motives of the film-makers. We all have political views, and we are lucky enough to be living in the United States where the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right of freedom of speech and the Fifth Amendment which guarantees due process of law to its citizens.
There are, however, a few small historical inaccuracies here and there, but any one going to a movie to expect an historically accurate movie, deserve neither accurate history, nor two hours of entertainment.