Directed by Robert Redford
Story & screenplay by James Solomon
James McAvoy as Frederick Aitken, US Army Captain who became the defence lawyer
Robin Wright as Mary Surratt
Kevin Kline as Secretary for War Edwin Stanton
Danny Huston as Joseph Holt, prosecutor
Colm Meaney as Major-General Hunter, president of the military tribunal
The Conspirator is the story of the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward in 1865. I had remembered almost nothing of the conspiracy. A websearch and a perusal of the bookshelf confirms that the story is closely based on the real history.
John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, had a collection of conspirators who helped him, one stabbing Seward many times. They had plotted in a Washington boarding house belonging to Mary Surratt. They were arrested and charged. They were tried by a military tribunal, and Surratt was found guilty and became the first woman hanged by the Federal government. The hero of the film is US Army captain and hero Frederick Aitken, just starting out in law practice and forced to defend her. He realizes that she is held as a substitute for her son, John Surratt who was a conspirator, but who fled and escaped. It’s a kangaroo court, bent on conviction at all costs, and Aitken finds himself defending Surratt because her trial is unconstitutional. John Surratt was caught, a year after his mother’s execution, and released after trial.
According to the on-screen note at the end, when he failed, the real Aitken went off and became editor of the Washington Post. The newspaper wasn’t founded until 1877, and then by Stilson Hutchins. Aitken is not mentioned in the online history, so this may depart from history. One of the two attorneys in the historical trial was called Frederick Aitken.
My favourite journalist joke appears elsewhere in my reviews but is irresistible here.
‘My deepest condolences on your loss, Mrs Lincoln. But enough of that, what did you think of the play?’
Or rather film.
There’s an odd and unconvincing two minutes on the battlefield to start with, with an injured Aitken ordering stretcher bearers to take his companion before him. Then Lincoln is murdered in the Ford Theatre in the first few minutes, while watching the play Our American Cousin ( Later we see the whole cast of the play have been arrested, quite peripherally.) The murder of Lincoln, the aftermath carrying him across the street to a house, the stabbing of Seward, the escape on horseback by Booth, meticulously replicate the descriptions of the actual events.
Ten minutes film-time later, McAvoy (as Aitken) is socializing with pals and girlfriend Sarah (Alexis Bledel), and the film feels like any BBC TV costume drama, with a weaker script. It takes off after that low point because all court dramas are enthralling and the acting is of a high standard. There remains a TV feel … it’s like watching two episodes of the BBC’s Garrow’s Law (set 150 years earlier) on the trot. There’s the same tension, the same loaded court, the same righteously-indignant attorney, the same doomed condemned prisoner, but alas none of the flashes of humour that enlivened the BBC production.
John McAvoy as Frederick Aitken
The impression throughout is of meticulous detail research on uniforms and locations. Lincoln’s box at the Ford Theatre is carefully reproduced. The hanging was photographed in 1865, and the gallows and hanging is reproduced exactly as the photo shows it was. Robin Wright looks like portraits of Mary Surratt.
Robin Wright as Mary Surratt
The real Mary Surratt
The film wears a heavy, even heavy-handed, agenda. The parallels don’t need pointing out. A spectacularly evil deed takes place, traumatising society, sparking the desire for righteous revenge, but also closure. Secretary For War Stanford represents that (as indeed the real one did). As he says, 600,000 have just died on the battlefield. The extent of civilian deaths through famine and disease is immeasurable. Mary Surratt knew about a plot to kidnap Lincoln, though she claimed she did not know that the plot had changed to one to murder Lincoln. The first was presumably a capital offence of treason in any case, though as the Civil War had not quite finished, treason is a moveable concept. In the light of the enormous death toll, there is unsurprisingly no sympathy for her, and Aitken is ostracised for defending her. His point is that she had a constitutional right to trial by jury in a civilian court, and due process has to be followed, and the Constitution makes no exceptions.
The prisoners are not treated well. The male prisoners are kept hooded in their cells, even if not dressed in dayglo orange. They are manacled all day. This is also historically accurate. The tribunal is rigged against them. The conclusions are foregone. The male conspirators are guilty anyway. Mary Surratt’s guilt is a balance, and even Aitken isn’t totally convinced of her innocence. Is she guilty herself, or taking the fall to protect her son? However, the powers-that-be need to finish her, and start afresh. Five of the nine judges voted for life imprisonment. They were over-ruled. That’s historical fact. In the film, Aitken gets a writ of Habeus Corpus to bring her before a civilian court, but President Andrew Johnson quashes it and orders the execution. I can’t trace whether the writ was fact, but it is known that Johnson rejected pleas for clemency. The hanging follows historical descriptions step-by-step and is chillingly accurate to an almost obsessive degree. Several photographs exist of the event.
The hanging in the film
The execution of the Lincoln conspirators: real photo, 1865
Did the film work? You wouldn’t lose a lot watching the DVD later, though as ever when a film is slow-paced, as this is, the lack of distraction in a cinema helps. It was good enough for everyone to watch right through the credits (the closing song helped).