As an iconic actor, conscientious director and liberal political activist, Robert Redford loves history lessons. In All the President’s Men, everybody knew about white-collar crime in the White House during Watergate, but nobody knew anything about the two reporters who exposed the story until Redford and Dustin Hoffman played them, in the interests of the great profession of journalism. In The Conspirator, Redford the director addresses another footnote to American history they leave out of textbooks: the little-known story of Mary Surratt, an innocent woman caught up in the U.S. government witch hunt following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It’s an exhaustively researched, brilliantly scripted, carefully made film, which cautiously avoids preachy propaganda of yesterday, while unavoidably reflecting the similar anxiety, tension and fear of a polarized nation today. What goes around, Redford seems to be saying, comes around.
It took screenwriter James Solomon 16 years to polish his script to perfection, and the hard work shows. We all know Lincoln was shot and killed at Ford’s Theatre in April 1865 by a single bullet to the head from the gun of assassin John Wilkes Booth. The Conspirator graphically re-creates the incident, but only uses it as a starting point to delve deeper into the vengeance and political chicanery that infected the country in the dark aftermath of the Civil War, leaving a nation divided and angry only two years after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, with everyone distrusting everybody, and politicians screaming for justice in the interests of power and self-promotion. In the margins of history, there is a sub-chapter historians choose to forget or ignore, in which Mary (meticulously played by a de-glammed Robin Wright, rough-hewn as a bar of Lava soap) was the only woman rounded up and charged as a co-conspirator in a plot to kill not only Lincoln but Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson, subjected to a corrupt trial and hanged with the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence (she appeared in the background of a photo depicting the accused rebels, taken in her boarding house). The facts of her case are still murky, but this movie finds her guilty of nothing more serious than being a Confederate sympathizer and devoted mother who ran a boarding house in Washington, D.C., where the conspirators rented rooms and Booth often visited her cowardly son, John, who could have cleared his mother but ran away and eluded a massive manhunt, leaving her to face the noose alone. (The film alleges he was shielded from the police by the Catholic Church.) Equally lethal to her cause: She was defended by Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a reluctant and inexperienced 28-year-old Union lawyer who was torn between his hatred for the South and his duty to the law, and tried by a military tribunal, thus denied the civil trial by jury that was her right as an American citizen. It was a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Not to mention the fact that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), one of Lincoln’s closest advisers, chose nine of his Union supporters to be judges—including one of Lincoln’s personal pallbearers—and cruelly refused her pleas for a public hearing. Even after the court found her not guilty as charged, Stanton changed the verdict. The shameful result was both an illegal and immoral attempt to appease a panicky populace demanding closure. Stanton wanted the conspirators buried and forgotten, and that’s exactly what happened. No wonder Mary is rarely mentioned in American History 101. Frederick was so disillusioned, he left the law and became the first editor of The Washington Post.
From the muddy streets and filthy Washington jail cells to the rooming-house wallpaper and stage settings of the play Lincoln watched the night of the assassination, the handsome period production details are just right. The Conspirator revels in meticulously channeling the kind of historic and geographical authenticity that is rare for an independent production on a shoestring budget. From Kline’s implacable and villainous Secretary of War and Danny Huston’s treacherous, guileful prosecutor to Evan Rachel Wood’s turn as Anna Surratt, the tragic victim’s noble daughter whose tearful attempts to tell the truth in court fell on deaf ears, the performances are uniformly sincere. McAvoy is especially significant as the conflicted attorney who, despite his Yankee sympathies, fought for a fair trial but failed to prevent a kangaroo court from making a mockery of the law. But it is Wright who staunchly holds the center ring. An enigma to this day, Mary remained unshaken in her faith and convictions, refusing to testify in her own defense, sealing her own fate as a scapegoat. Masterfully austere, without a smidge of rouge, Wright manages to be both stoic and vulnerable.
As a director, Redford knows how to handle his actors, build suspense and construct a slice of U.S. history about loyalty and honor in the face of terror and pessimism. He has studiously and laboriously chronicled the events of 1865 into his best film since Quiz Show, but rest assured he has not overlooked the parallels between a young nation in crisis and the post-9/11 fragility of America today. We’re still living in a land of fear and confusion. Lincoln himself said “A house divided cannot stand.” Now that so-called house is more divided than ever, endangering the lofty ideals on which America was based, and plunging us all in turmoil. No matter your political leanings, the great thing about The Conspirator is that Redford is wise enough to let the audience decide what the parallels are. See it, enjoy a ripping good yarn, and learn something.