The trial of Mary Surratt was rushed and bloodthirsty to say the least. Charged with conspiracy to kill President Abraham Lincoln, the military court showed her little mercy during the inquisition. Nevertheless, the guilt of Mary Surratt has never to my knowledge been in any serious doubt, but you wouldn’t know it from Robert Redford’s new film The Conspirator. Redford has changed facts, omitted others, and moved around history to make his message work with the story. The message? Well, it’s either: let’s try Khalid Sheik Muhammad in New York, or the death penalty is a bad idea. The film is clearly trying to send some sort of message, and as such its historical accuracy is doubtful. Still, The Conspirator is well made and although it does play around with facts it forces us to think about something that we’d rather not think about. With the death penalty, there’s always a “What if?” that we must ask ourselves. One wonders, how many innocent people have been put to death because of haste and government corruption?
The movie is seen through the eyes of Captain Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a lawyer who has just returned from the front lines of the victorious Union Army. Through an unfortunate series of events he finds himself acting as the lawyer for one Mary Surratt, mother of one of the conspirators and a woman who Aiken is convinced is most certainly guilty. Once he gets into the trial though, he realizes the vengefulness of the accusing government, and it becomes clear that nothing he can say will change their minds about whether or not she is guilty. Their minds are made up, no questions asked. They will see Mary Surratt hang if it takes six thousand years. If the film over sympathizes with Mary (Robin Wright), it over villainizes Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who above all else wants to bring Mary to the noose. His excuse for such vengefulness is that it is sometimes necessary to violate a person’s rights for the sake of the entire nation: sort of a “greater good” cop-out isn’t it? Of course this makes sense coming from Lincoln’s Secretary of War. Lincoln who took away more rights in the name of the greater good than any American president.
At the beginning of their relationship, Mary is extremely suspicious of Aiken, suspecting him of sabotage because he’s a Yankee. Aiken doesn’t believe she’s innocent at all, but is willing to give her as much of a fair chance as possible. By the end of this ordeal, they are great friends, sorry to be parted from each other. I have to say; I think this is one of the few times that knowing what happens has bothered me. As I was watching I thought, what’s the purpose? We all know how this is going to end. However, there were some scenes that made me boil over in anger at the government bureaucrats and unjust generals; other scenes filled with nail-biting suspense. This is a skillful movie with good performances on the part of Robin Wright and especially James McAvoy. The two play off each other perfectly, and Robin Wright’s southern accent is impressive. Still, at times the movie feels a little too much like a History Channel documentary. It wanders around sometimes and 19th-century Washington, D.C. is less than authentic looking. I don’t know. It felt and looked a bit computer generated. The Capitol building and the White House all sit on nice grassy plains and hills as if isolated from each other by miles and miles. Well, anyone who has been to Washington can tell you that the city is less than large, and things aren’t so spread out. I did appreciate the portrayal of Ford’s Theatre as small and claustrophobic, rather than as the typical Hollywood opera house. John Wilkes Booth’s mustache is somewhat frightening and seems like it’s about to fall off his face, but that’s just nit-picking.
Overall, this is a decent film with a few flaws. It certainly plays with history to promote its message, but I doubt there’s a movie in history about a true story that didn’t do that. I always enjoy movies that make me think or reconsider my convictions. The movie targets the death penalty above all else. As we know, Mary Surratt was the first woman executed by the United States government. Was the sentence fair? Was it just the result of vengefulness and corruption? Maybe we’ll never know.
The American Film Company presents
Cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Even Rachel Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Klein, Danny Huston, Justin Long, Johnny Simmons. Directed by Robert Redford.
Rated PG-13 for some violent content. Release Date: 15 April 2011