When April 14 rolled around last Thursday, it marked the 146th anniversary of an event that historians have continued to write about ever since. On that evening at Ford’s Theatre in 1865, John Wilkes Booth fired a single bullet into President Abraham Lincoln’s head, made a dramatic leap to the stage, shouted a few words, and disappeared into the night.
As Lincoln lingered in the throes of death, the manhunt for Booth began. The president died the next morning, but Booth was not be found and killed until April 26. Of course there was no mystery about whether not Booth had shot the president, but there was plenty of controversy over who had plotted with him to formulate the plan that was to have included the concomitant deaths of Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Johnson’s life was spared when George Atzerodt decided not to go through with his part of the plan, and Seward survived the stabbing attack at the hands of Lewis Paine.
On April 26, a group of cavalrymen under the leadership of Lt. Edward Doherty found Booth and his accomplice David Herold in a tobacco barn in the vicinity of Bowling Green, Va. Herold surrendered, but Booth refused to give up and was shot to death by Corp. Boston Corbett.
Authorities believed that much of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln was planned at a boarding house run by Mary Surratt, and because of this she was arrested and tried before a military commission instead of in a regular courtroom in front of a jury. She was convicted of being part of the assassination plot, her appeal for a civil trial failed, and she was hanged along with George Atzerodt, David Herold, and Lewis Paine.
The events leading up to and including the trial and execution of Mary Surratt are now chronicled in an engaging, albeit sluggish at times, film directed by Academy Award winner Robert Redford and starring Robin Wright as Mary Surratt, James McAvoy as her lawyer, Frederick Aiken, Evan Rachel Wood as Anna Surratt, and Tom Wilkinson as Reverdy Johnson.
The main question at the heart of “The Conspirator” is whether or not Mary Surratt had any part in planning the assassination of Lincoln. There’s no doubt that the meetings took place in her boarding house, but her part in them remains a mystery today. In the film’s production notes, scriptwriter James D. Solomon addressed this issue.
“There’s no question in my mind that Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, and Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General, thought she was guilty, and there’s no question in my mind that her defense lawyer, Frederick Aiken, thought she was innocent. Perhaps the truth is somewhere between both points of view and I think that’s sort of where I would like it to be, because the ambiguity is the most truthful.”
The acting in “The Conspirator” is consistently outstanding. Of course the most interesting relationship in the movie is the one between Mary Surratt and her attorney, Aiken, because she is a staunch Confederate, and he is a hero in the Union Army. But as the two of them get to know each other, they arrive at a very strong mutual respect, and both Wright and McAvoy convey the transformations in their respective characters superbly.
One of the most important figures in this drama was Secretary of State Edwin Stanton, portrayed with predictable élan by Academy Award winner Kevin Kline. As soon as Lincoln is assassinated, Stanton takes over to get the wheels of “justice” moving as quickly as possible. This is why Mary and the other three who were hanged with her faced the military tribunal rather than a regular trial. And the big question is whether or not Mary received justice. In the production notes Kline explained his character’s motivation.
“(Stanton) wanted justice, but more than anything he wanted it over. He wanted every conspirator buried, forgotten, erased from the national consciousness, so that’s what he tried to do.”
In addition to the fine acting, this film boasts marvelous sets and costumes, but it also has several drawbacks. It has a tendency to be very talky in places, and this caused it to drag in certain spots.
The most disappointing aspect of the film for me, however, was the lack of fiery drama in the courtroom scenes. Such a vital part of the story plays out in the courtroom, but I found these segments to be sore lacking in sufficient electricity. With the exception of one scene in which Mary’s daughter testifies, the court scenes were ploddingly dull.
“The Conspirator” (Let’s give it a 7.) is definitely worth seeing, especially for people who are into history. But don’t go expecting this movie to knock you out of your seat because it simply won’t do it. Also, I must plead guilty to the fact that I could never sit through it again.