Only an act of ignorance would say that the mid-19thCentury was anything but a period of turbulence in America. By 1860, a century of differences finally came to a breaking point, leading Southern states to pull away from the union – beginning with South Carolina in December of that year – and the resulting war saw the loss of 620,000 Americans, more than all other American wars combined; according to historian John Huddleston, 10% of the adult male population in the North, 30% of that of the South. That citizens on both sides were disenchanted with the life they had inherited, especially the vanquished in the South, should only be assumed. Southern lifestyles had been most altered, leaving an odd brand of patriotism, amongst them, high.
It is because of this (and some have further suggested madness) that one of the most famous acts of history occurred: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
The assassin was John Wilkes Booth, a handsome, suave matinee idol, charming enough to piece together a band of characters that plotted, first, Lincoln’s kidnapping, and, later, his assassination. The involvement of some of those conspirators, however, remains highly suspect. The trial and guilt (by association?) of Mary Surratt was the subject of the 2011 film, The Conspirator, now available on DVD.
Set at the end of the War Between the States, in the immediate aftermath of Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s death, the film takes the viewer on a journey of discovery, seeing a part of American history that few history classes promote, showing a new version of once-accepted truths.
Through character flashbacks, viewers get to see events as they unfolded at Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday, 1865, as well as the beginning of the plot and its link to Mrs. Surratt (Robin Wright), who owned a boarding house where many of the key characters stayed (and Booth, a friend of Surratt’s son, John, often visited).
With the help of first time screenwriter James Solomon, Wright delivers tenfold as the lead character. Her face, sullen and shrouded in black; a mask of the sorrow indicative of both the historical Surratt and the mood of the nation. To help her along in her performance, Wright is joined by a star studded cast that includes Evan Rachel Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Alexis Bledel, Justin Long, and Glee star Jonathan Groff. It is James McAvoy, however, who comes closest to matching Wright’s zeal with a strong performance as Union war hero Frederick Aiken, the defense lawyer, assigned – at first reluctantly – to defend Surratt from certain conviction, but as an actor, he seems to draw his passion from Wright, mimicking their real life characters.
As one might suspect, much of The Conspirator takes place in the courtroom, where legal procedure and precedents is introduced. While it is educational, in itself, many initial critics were skeptical of Redford’s vision, accusing the director of pushing his own political ideology on unsuspecting viewers, comparing Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) to George W. Bush, and Surratt’s trial to those in the aftermath of 9/11 and the controversy surrounding the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Perhaps, there is a comparison to be made, but if done properly, however – and this film certainly meets those standards – such political meditations should come as an afterthought and that certainly proves true in the case of The Conspirator, which is a testaments to all involved in the making of this picture, as the viewer, unquestionably, feels as if they’re actually in 1865, a living witness to history. The film assures that we grieve for the loss of, not only a woman’s rights, but of the woman herself, whom generations of Americans have been taught was a vile creature, if only as a subtext of history.