Monday, March 25, 2013

The Conspirator (American Film Company/Wildwood Enterprises/Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s movie was The Conspirator, the “other” recent movie about Abraham Lincoln, directed by Robert Redford and starring a cast of highly competent actors with little or no drawing power on the marquee (the biggest names associated with this film, at least in front of the camera, are Robin Wright as Mary Surratt and Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton). It was the debut production of the American Film Company, whose mission was to produce factually accurate movies dramatizing significant but largely forgotten aspects of American history, and it pretty much sank without a trace at the box office. That’s a pity, because it’s quite a good movie, albeit rather old-fashioned and stolid in the manner of most of Redford’s work as a director, though the much-vaunted effort at historical accuracy didn’t stop the contributors from riddling the movie’s page with goofs. (One they didn’t spot: an early line of dialogue refers to “when General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox.” That didn’t happen; when Lee surrendered at Appomattox the Union general who accepted his surrender was George Meade, who 21 months earlier had led the army against him at Gettysburg.) At least part of the problem with this movie is that it’s confusing if you don’t know the historical background behind it: the real-life trial of eight people for allegedly conspiring with John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) to assassinate not only President Lincoln but also the next two people (then) in line for the presidency, vice-president Andrew Johnson and secretary of state William Seward.

The conspirators were a bunch of Confederate diehards who for two years previously had been hatching a plot to kidnap Lincoln and hold him as hostage until he agreed to sign a peace agreement that would let the Confederate states out of the Union. Unable to do that because Lincoln kept changing his plans and was never in the location from which they expected to kidnap him, after the surrender and especially after Lincoln’s first (and, as it turned out, last) public speech before the war contained a pledge to consider letting at least some African-Americans vote, they decided on this three-pronged conspiracy to decapitate the Union government, plunge the country into chaos and thereby accomplish through political murder what the Confederate armies hadn’t been able to achieve on the battlefield. What went wrong for the conspirators was that, though Lincoln was murdered on schedule, Seward’s assassin, Lewis Payne a.k.a. Lewis Powell (Norman Reedus) attacked him in his sickroom with a knife (Seward was recovering from a carriage accident — a lot of people don’t realize that there were traffic accidents before there were cars) and severed his cheek but failed to kill him, and Johnson’s would-be assassin, George Atzerodt (John Michael Weatherly), lost his nerve and instead of killing the vice-president he went out and got drunk. (It’s ironic that Johnson, a notorious alcoholic who got off to a bad start in his presidency by delivering his first public speech as President clearly under the influence, was spared assassination because his would-be killer also liked the bottle.)

The Conspirator begins during one of the battles of the Civil War, in which the film’s central character, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), is badly wounded but tells the medic to attend to the guy lying next to him even though the other guy is in worse shape than he is. Then there’s a title that says, “Two years later,” and two years later the Civil War has just ended and Aiken is in Washington, D.C., assuming he’ll resume both his civilian law practice and his relationship with his girlfriend Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel) which were interrupted by his Civil War service. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) recruits him for a job in the War Department, but Aiken says he’s worn a uniform for too long and he wants to be back in civilian clothes. Then President Lincoln gets assassinated, Seward gets seriously wounded and Stanton immediately assumes that there’s a major conspiracy behind it. He traces it to the boardinghouse of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) and determines that virtually all the conspirators were residents of her house — all except Booth, who as a reasonably popular actor (though he was not one of the superstars of the age; his brother, Edwin Booth, was a superstar and quite a few people at the time believed that John Wilkes Booth had shot Lincoln just to do something that would make him more famous than his brother!) was able to stay at a hotel whenever he was in Washington, D.C. to perform at Ford’s Theatre, which was quite often. (Apparently one reason Booth was picked by the conspirators to assassinate Lincoln at the theatre was that as an actor who’d frequently appeared there, his presence backstage and in the hallways would not attract suspicion.) One of the suspected conspirators is Mary’s son John Surratt (Johnny Simmons), but he manages to escape Stanton’s manhunt even though Payne, Atzerodt and five other people are caught. Mary Surratt is arrested for the crime and she and the other seven prisoners are held incommunicado, spending some time inside a monitor-type vessel (where the Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner, who shot more photos of Lincoln than anyone else, took their pictures in a surprisingly artistic manner) and then being moved to the building where they were to be tried by a nine-member military commission.

U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson of Maryland (Tom Wilkinson) first agrees to represent Mary Surratt in the trial, but backs out just before it opens and assigns his friend Frederick Aiken, who in the pattern of innumerable movie protagonists before him is at first reluctant to take on so controversial and seemingly hopeless a case, but ultimately becomes convinced not only that Mary Surratt is innocent — his argument is she was just running a boardinghouse and wasn’t responsible for whatever her tenants might have been plotting — but that the entire trial by military commission, with nine judges all hand-picked by Stanton and ferocious pressure from the Secretary of War to make sure the “right” verdict came in, is an affront to the U.S. Constitution and the values Aiken and his brethren in the Union Army were supposedly fighting for. Aiken’s attempt to win an acquittal for Surratt is hamstrung not only by the rules of the court, which are continually shifting to make sure the verdict is guilty, but by Mary Surratt’s own intransigence on one point: every time Aiken starts to argue that the person who should be punished in Mrs. Surratt’s place is her son John, Mary has a wing-ding of a fit and cuts him off immediately. When The Conspirator came out, most of the critics “read” the film as a parallel to the “war on terror” and the military commissions President George W. Bush had specified as the way to try suspected terrorists. The parallel is unforced but nonetheless there — especially in Stanton’s speeches, which often do sound like Dick Cheney was channeling him — but the publicity surrounding it was probably this movie’s kiss of death at the box office: none of the films about the “war on terror” had done especially well commercially, and Robert Redford was undoubtedly well aware of this because one of the biggest flops had been his own previous film Lions for Lambs. Part of the problem with The Conspirator is the historical background is confusing; frankly, it helped a great deal that Charles and I watched this movie on a two-disc DVD edition in which disc one contained the feature film itself and disc two included a 66-minute made-for-TV documentary, The Conspirator: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Lincoln, which Charles and I watched first: it gave us an historical grounding in the story without which the events in the movie (particularly the fast-moving scenes at the beginning that show the actual assassination of Lincoln) would have been confusing and almost incomprehensible.

Robert Redford’s insistence on casting the almost unknown James McAvoy didn’t help this film’s commercial fate either, I’m sure, yet McAvoy’s performance is excellent even in a rather clichéd Bogart-esque character arc (the writing credits are James Solomon and Gregory Bernstein for the film’s “story” and Solomon solo for the script). But the film is actually quite good, watchable in a quiet, gentle vein typical of Redford’s work as a director; the film plays down the tear-jerking aspects of Mary Surratt’s fate (not only is she being framed for the most heinous crime imaginable but it’s clear that the only way she has of sparing herself the gallows is by turning in her son) and concentrates on the horrendous miscarriage of justice represented by military-commission trials (then and now), the vehemence and thoroughness with which Stanton stacks the deck to ensure not only that the prisoners be found guilty but that Mary Surratt be one of the ones put to death (when his commission votes 5-4 to sentence her to life imprisonment instead of death he reconvenes them until they give him the “right” answer). When Aiken finally finds a judge to issue a writ of habeas corpus to deliver Mary Surratt over to the civilian courts for a normal trial instead of the “military commission” sham, the writ is countermanded by, of all people, President Andrew Johnson, who agrees to Stanton’s demand for a document ordering the execution anyway. (Later Johnson and Stanton would have an epic clash that would result in Johnson’s impeachment and near-removal from the presidency — he escaped U.S. Senate conviction by one vote — after Johnson tried to remove Stanton from office because he wanted the military occupation of the South by government troops either ended or eased.) The Conspirator is full of historically interesting characters — including Reverdy Johnson, who as a Senator from a so-called “border state” (one which allowed slavery but did not secede) was Lincoln’s choice during the months between his election and his inauguration to be his emissary to the Southern states and promise a Constitutional amendment to guarantee that slavery would never be abolished in the states that already had it in exchange for the South remaining in the Union — and the tale itself has quite a few bizarre ironies.

One of the shots in the documentary is of a postcard showing the three Booth brothers — John Wilkes, Edwin Thomas (the true superstar of the family) and Junius Brutus, Jr. — in a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1864. No fiction writer would dare make that up — one of the most famous political assassins in history acting in a play about another one of the most famous assassinations in history![1] (To add to the ironies, Edwin Booth saved Lincoln’s son Robert from being crushed to death on a train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey less than a year before John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln.) The Conspirator is a fine movie, a bit slow at times, but well staged even if it suffers from a severe case of the past-is-brown disease; cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel was quoted as saying he was after the look of sepia-toned photographs of the period, but quite frankly if he and director Redford had really wanted an historically authentic “look” they should have shot it in black-and-white and gone after the finely honed, chiseled look of Alexander Gardner’s non-sepia-tinted photos. It’s beautifully acted — like most actor-directors, Redford is a master at getting his actors to turn in finely honed, understated performances (I’ve noticed that even actor-directors who as actors were unmitigated hams, like Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles, generally managed to get the other actors they directed to underplay) and James McAvoy would probably be on his way to major stardom right now if this film had got the attention and commercial success it deserved. As for the American Film Company, their Web site ( lists their second production as Parkland, another movie about the aftermath of a Presidential assassination (this time John F. Kennedy’s), but two other films, Ghosts of the Pacific (about three Navy flyers who crash-landed in the Pacific Ocean in January 1942 and how they survived) and Born in the Badlands (about the young-adulthood of Teddy Roosevelt) are listed as “pre-production” and “in development,” and obviously the commercial disappointment of The Conspirator isn’t going to help those get made.

 The Conspirator is also interesting for the way in which it dramatizes the overwhelming evidence that a conspiracy to kill Lincoln and the U.S.’s top officials at the end of the Civil War did exist and that most of the males accused of being part of it in fact were guilty — there’s still debate over whether Mary Surratt was an active member of the conspiracy, a passive member (i.e., that she saw these people congregating at her boardinghouse and having discussions about crimes, and did nothing to stop them or report them but wasn’t active herself) or totally innocent of what was going on under her roof; and, even if she bore some guilt, whether she was so culpable she deserved to be hanged. (She was the first woman ever hanged by the U.S. federal government, and they didn’t quite know how to do it: as well as tying her arms behind her back, as was customary, they also tied her legs together for fear her dress would go up as she fell and treat the crowd watching the spectacle to a view of her “unmentionables.”) But there can be no rational debate over the existence of a conspiracy and its overriding purpose — to win the war through assassination and subterfuge the Confederacy had been unable to win in battle — just as there can be no rational debate that President John F. Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy: the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald, in that window, with that rifle, shooting that badly, could have brought down JFK on his own and caused all the wounds both Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally suffered is physically impossible. The successor administrations (both led by former vice-presidents named Johnson!) handled the cases quite differently: Edwin Stanton immediately assumed (correctly) that a conspiracy was involved and mounted a massive manhunt for the conspirators, while from the get-go Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy framed the JFK assassination as the work of one lone nut — yet the result has, ironically, been pretty much the same; generations of schoolchildren have been taught that John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald both acted alone — weirdly fulfilling Stanton’s wish, expressed in the movie in a line the writers copied from accounts of the day, that the conspirators be “buried and forgotten.”

It’s also a pity The Conspirator wasn’t a box-office success because there’s a sequel waiting to be made: the further adventures of John Surratt, who escaped to Europe, became one of the Swiss Guards guarding the Pope in the Vatican (the Pope at the time was Pius IX, the one who published an encyclical declaring democracy anti-Christian and a ruling invalidating the 1857 constitution of Mexico because it didn’t establish Roman Catholicism as the only faith allowed, so the Catholic, pro-Confederate Surratt fils would have fit right in!), was finally located by U.S. authorities and extradited — and in 1867 he was tried in a civilian court (not a military tribunal!), and after the jury hung was set free and lived until 1914. As for Frederick Aiken, the scandal over his to-the-wall-and-then-some representation of Mary Surratt drove him out of polite society (there’s a scene in the movie in which he’s thrown out of his country club) and out of the legal profession, and he ended up as the first city editor of the Washington Post (yet another irony: the movie about the first Washington Post city editor ends up being directed by the man who played one of the two most famous reporters in that paper’s history, Bob Woodward, in All the President’s Men). Watching The Conspirator now, on the eve of the DVD release of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic (itself focused on the final stages of Lincoln’s life and in particular on his struggles to get the 13th Amendment through Congress), may seem like an appetizer to the more prestigious and more successful (but still not a blockbuster, and a bust with the Academy voters with only two awards despite its 12 nominations) Spielberg film, but it’s a compelling movie in its own right and it deserved a better fate than it got.

[1] — According to Edwin Booth’s Wikipedia page, Edwin played Brutus, Junius played Cassius and John Wilkes played Antony — so the one real-life assassin of the three played the character not involved in killing Caesar.