Generally I don't think people should learn their history from films. "The Conspirator" is the exception that proves my rule. “The Conspirator” is intense, driving ever forward into a dark time in American history. This intricate and intimate film tells more than the story of Mary Surratt, the lone female charged with seven men in the conspiracy to murder the U.S. President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State in 1865. The film’s tag line is “One bullet killed the President, but not one man.” We only ever hear about John Wilkes Booth. This film assures that no one will ever forget the conspiracy – or Mary Surratt -- again.
The pictures are bright or stormy out of doors, dim and soft inside, with light flickering through curtains, halos around candles, and deep shadows in the corners. There is a mustiness, a layer of dust, dirt and muck as director Robert Redford, writers James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein and the American Film Company pull us back in time. The film’s performances are deep, crisp, with familiar actors becoming less so when embedded in the mid 19th century -- and I don’t merely mean costumes and haircuts.
For me to give many details would do the film a disservice. It is a riveting story, extremely well told. It is deep without slogging or slowing down. The characters are multi-faceted real people, the prices paid to personal relationships, not to mention life, severe. This is history, so it is no spoiler when I say that the film ends with the statement that, after Mary Surratt was hanged by the military tribunal, a law was passed that all citizens of the United States deserved civil trials, not military.
The film starts on a Civil War battlefield, with Union soldiers and officers suffering in the aftermath of a bloody fight. Some lay dying, and we meet Union Captain Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), wounded himself, trying to keep his friend Baker (a tad overplayed by Justin Long) alive by keeping him awake. The battle over, Union soldiers search the field for survivors, and Aiken’s and Baker’s friend Hamilton (James Badge Dale in a quiet performance of an earnest, sensible, and loyal friend) finds the wounded pair. We next see them all healed but still in uniform for a party. Everyone is dressed to the nines, and an abundance of candles light the night. A lawyer by profession, Aiken has a career and a pretty girl (Alexis Bledel) in his future, and plans for networking on his mind.
A pleasant evening of social positioning is interrupted by the actions of the conspirators, Confederates attempting to throw the Union government into chaos and turn the tide of the war they had already lost. Some of the scenes in the early part of this film will be surprising – and somewhat shocking – to many. The assassination of President Lincoln was one act; the attempted murders of Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson were also on the bill. We see the young conspirators building their courage, sweating, pushing forward -- or running away. We see some inexpert and frightening violence. All that the writers and director throw at us brings us to the height of emotion felt in the capital city in April 1865 and prepares us for the political and legal wrangling to come. It’s an interesting and stirring story, true to its own time, but also to ours.
Robin Wright is in rare form as Mary Surratt, drawn, dried out and silent, with an extraordinary core of strength. Catholic, Confederate, and female, everything is against her in Washington, DC. It was her boarding house where several of the conspirators, including John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbel) and Mary’s son John (Johnny Simmons), met and plotted. The question in her trial was whether or not she knew that, or was just a landlady. Evan Rachel Wood plays Anna Surratt, Mary’s daughter, sullen, romantic, stubborn, and loyal. Very fine work, I believed every moment.
James McAvoy is totally true as Aiken. He is like everyone else – he survives the war and is preparing for civilian life, riding his popularity and connections to a successful career. He sees not only his President but his Commander-in-Chief murdered and naturally wants all the guilty parties brought to justice. It just doesn’t occur to him that the law requires that all parties accused of a crime be defended competently, even if in the wrong court of law. He does not want the duty foisted on him by his employer, Reverdy Johnson, to defend a woman accused of conspiring to kill the President. Day by day, though, as he does his job as best he can, he questions himself, he opens his mind, he learns, and then he must question others. Questioning popular opinion as well as those in authority makes for a doubtful future. McAvoy passionately engages us so that we see what he sees, feel what he feels; we watch his face and understand what he is coming to understand. Very nice work.
Tom Wilkinson is the Maryland lawyer Reverdy Johnson for whom Aiken works. Johnson insists that Mary Surratt is entitled to an adequate defense even in time of war, national exhaustion, and hatred of the conspirators. He leaves it to Aiken to carry forward the defense, perhaps honestly thinking this young officer will be viewed more fairly than the southern-sounding Marylander. Perhaps not. Wilkinson is not at the top of his game here, but rather a smidgen over it.
Kevin Kline lives the part of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, staunch, determined, sure of himself. He’s an extraordinary actor, brilliant in his youth, and steadily more so as he ages. Long may he reign.
Colm Meaney is the leader of the military tribunal that tries Mary Surratt, Danny Huston the prosecutor Joseph Holt. Both are interesting players, making it clear that what’s behind what sometimes appears to be a witch hunt may be a little more complex. This was not the writers trying to be even handed. This was a fair presentation of different points of view of the people trying to hold the country together in a time of crisis. These two actors were up to the task.
Aiken’s girlfriend Sarah Weston clearly hoped for a settled future with a war hero and a lawyer, until he actually did his best to follow the law and defend his unpopular client. Alexis Bledel is a rather quirky, charming actress, but doesn’t quite fit in this role.
Jonathan Groff gives an odd performance as Louis Weichmann, a friend of the Surratt household who turned against Mary. Although it was clear he lied through his testimony, as did others, his disposition was so off-kilter that he distracted from the story. I thought of him not as Weichmann, but as Groff the actor making strange choices that, whatever they were, might have worked on stage, but which were not working on film.
None of the testimonies mattered, of course. The military tribunal had essentially decided on Mrs. Surratt’s guilt – the only disagreement was about hanging her. All they wanted was her son, John, but he remained in hiding out of the country. However the audience might have felt in the beginning of the film, when politics overrules law, even those who stood with Secretary of War Stanton might waver.
John Cullum has a small but choice role as Judge Wylie, who stands for the law and the rights of citizens instead of following the hysteria and short-term vengeance of other leaders of the nation. Cullum is simple and straightforward and gravelly as a tired old man who pulls what he requires from young Aiken.
Frederick Aiken believed in the law, but the law did not prevail at this moment in history. Perfectly understandable political vengeance prevailed, our divided country was wounded in a way it did not even notice, and Frederick Aiken left the profession of law as if it were a mistress who had betrayed him.
Beginning to end, Robert Redford’s direction is flawless, the story moves forward, pauses for a moment’s reflection, then moves forward again to its inevitable climax. This is history, after all. While people and quotes from primary research sources are bound to be left out to keep the story moving and uncluttered, these filmmakers were clearly determined on deep research and accuracy. "The Conspirator" tells the story of the people as they were and their actions, all in a well-structured and -performed film. We follow Frederick Aiken on his emotional and intellectual journey, we feel with him, we rage with him, we change with him. The solid, crisp, yet deeply felt script by James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein is expertly handled by Mr. Redford. I’d be interested in any story these three might venture to tell together in future.
The viewer’s mind is riveted to this shocking story in the past, but finally flashes forward to our present conflicts and issues. Nothing really changes, does it.
~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light. Lots of reading to do…