Film Reviews


By • Apr 11th, 2011 •

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Slow and emotionally sterile. The characters objectives and motives? Not a clue.

It’s not about the assassination of President Lincoln or the conspirators – it’s about the boring military trial without star witnesses, and a mute defendant.

Quickly, director Robert Redford dispenses with the run-up to the trial. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s theater on April 14, 1865 a few days after the Civil War ended. The government, led by President Andrew Johnson, went after everyone involved in the planning of the assassination. Since Booth was killed 12 days later by Union soldiers, and all the other active participants were hunted, tried and hanged, the government then went after the co-conspirators.

THE CONSPIRATOR is the story of Mary Surratt, whose son, John Surratt, was alleged to be part of the plot.

But first, why did Booth, a well-known actor, want to kill Lincoln? I did the research – so you don’t have to. From Wikipedia: “Booth was also a Confederate sympathizer vehement in his denunciation of the Lincoln Administration and outraged by the South’s defeat in the American Civil War. He strongly opposed the abolition of slavery in the United States and Lincoln’s proposal to extend voting rights to recently emancipated slaves.

“Booth and a group of co-conspirators planned to kill Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward, in a bid to help the Confederacy’s cause. Although Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered four days earlier, Booth believed the war was not yet over because Confederate General Joseph Johnston’s army was still fighting the Union Army. Of the conspirators, only Booth was completely successful in carrying out his respective part of the plot.”

John Surratt was said to be one of the conspirators. The government had good reason to investigate the Surratt family. He admitted to having been actively involved in an earlier plot to kidnap the president. His mother, Mary Surratt, owned and ran the boarding house where the plotters had stayed.

Here is where Redford’s THE CONSPIRATOR veers from history. Was Mary Surratt an innocent bystander who had no clue the group of men staying at her boarding house were planning to assassinate Lincoln? Circumstantial evidence – not even hinted at by Redford – said Mary had a part in aiding and abetting the plot. A strong case was indeed made at her military trial that she was an active accomplice.*

But why was Mary Surratt tried in a military court and without a jury? This is the crux of Redford’s film.

THE CONSPIRATOR paints Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) as a railroaded victim of governmental and public hysteria. She was not given a proper trial but held in military custody under medieval conditions. Her cell was sparse and equipped with only a straw pallet and a bucket. Mary Surratt, as portrayed by Wright, is a noble woman of few words.

I would have liked to know her politics, or at least more about her relationship with her son. It appears, by Redford’s design, that Mary Surratt left her defense to a young, unwilling attorney, war hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who was worried the case would smear his political ambitions.

Reluctantly, Aiken is bullied by Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to defend Mary Surratt at her trial. Back in those days, defense attorneys on high profile cases were not lionized by the press or given book deals. Imagine how many lawyers were campaigning to defend Lee Harvey Oswald – pro bono – if he wasn’t summarily and conveniently done away with.

Screenwriters James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein dispense with the facts against Surratt or the witnesses. They do slip in, I assume unintentionally, one comment by Surratt that is revealing. She tells Aiken that she held her son too close to her. Was the boarding house so palatial that Mary had no idea what was going on right under her nose? Did she hide weapons for them? Did she lie about her whereabouts on the day of the assassination?

Oh, never mind. The military trial was a sham because Mary Surratt was not a soldier. It is being suggested that Redford used the Surratt case to highlight the unfair military trials for detainees being held at Guantánamo Bay. President Obama has approved the resumption of military trials for detainees at Guantánamo Bay, ending a two-year ban. Obama also issued an executive order on establishing a process to continue to hold some Guantánamo detainees who have been neither charged, convicted nor designated for transfer but who are deemed to pose a threat to US security.

What kind of relationship did Mary and John have? When his mother was arrested, why didn’t he immediately give himself up and tell the court she had nothing to do with the plot? What the hell kind of son was John Surratt? A no-good piece of ugly work in my book.

The film is bogged down with a talky trial without offering one bit of evidence implicating Surratt. Why not leave her guilt or innocence up to the audience? Did we really need Aiken’s girlfriend (Alexis Bledel), a buddy (Justin Long), and Mary’s daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) instead of learning something about the other co-conspirators? Why wasn’t Anna arrested or at least a witness for her mother at trial?

Even though Aiken did his best, Mary Surratt was convicted of taking part in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln. Sentenced to death, she was the first woman executed by the federal government and was hanged with other co-conspirators. The film ends with the arrest of John Surratt, who got a much better lawyer. Why was he not found guilty in the assassination? Was Mary Surratt the mastermind?

While Redford slavishly dotes on the historical accuracy of the production, he ignores drama, conflict and his character’s emotions. It’s a sterile, cold, slow moving film.

McAvoy has no presence. He, and the entire production, is shot in washed out hues. He is surrounded by actors (Kevin Kline, Danny Huston) who over-act. (Well, they do no matter what film they are in.) McAvoy’s character is hailed a war hero, but we never see strength or drive – just uncertainty and bewilderment.

As I said, Wright is not given much to do except look saintly. I expect the real Mary Surratt was one tough lady who endured a long, bad marriage, raised children, owned a farm (the family’s slaves finally ran away or were repossessed) and tavern, was widowed and, at the end of the war, in financial distress. Renting out the farm and tavern, Surratt was a woman who ran a boarding house out of her home during the Civil War. Not easy now, and certainly not easy in 1856.

*You decide. On the day of the assassination, Mary Surratt rode out to her tavern with one of her boarders, who was a friend of her son, John Surratt, Jr. Although Mary Surratt claimed to have made the journey to collect back rent owed by her tenant, John Lloyd, Lloyd later testified against her, saying she gave him a package containing field glasses and told him to “make ready the shooting irons.”

This referred to two repeating carbines and seven revolvers that she had bought and stored for the conspirators on her property. After assassinating President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth did in fact first stop at the Surrattsville tavern with his accomplice David Herold. John Lloyd, the innkeeper, gave Booth and Herold whiskey, pistols, and one of two Spencer carbines as well as the field glasses. Lloyd claimed Surratt had told him to do this when she arrived earlier that day.

Booth and Herold then continued traveling southward, helped by many of the same Southern sympathizers who had aided John Surratt in his activities as a courier for the Confederacy.

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