As American citizens we supposedly have a right to a speedy trial, but after the assassination of then-President Abraham Lincoln, the trial of the supposed conspirators moved too fast. The 2010 historical drama “The Conspirator” looks at the trial and defense of Mary Surratt, the woman who owned the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth met with others to plan three simultaneous attacks.
Mary Surratt was the first woman to be executed by the U.S. federal government (since all those supposed witches were killed when the people were part of British colonies). She was the only woman tried in this assassination conspiracy case that resulted in a change in U.S. law.
James D. Solomon’s screenplay begins with two soldiers, both with the Union. The battle has had left dead men scattered on the field. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy, Mr. Tumnus on “The Chronicles of Narnia” and Robbie Turner on “Atonement”) and Nicholas Baker (Justin Long, the Get a Mac guy) are laying down on their backs, seriously injured, but attempting to stay conscious. About two years later, the Civil War is over. Aiken and Baker learn that Lincoln(Gerard Bestrom) and his wife (Marshell Canney) are attending the play “Our American Cousin;” Aiken and his girlfriend Sarah (Alexis Bledel) decide to stroll by.
The conspirators have already set their plan in motion. John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) sneaks into the theater–as an actor he was well known there. Booth shoots the President and jumps to the stage. His cohorts Lewis Payne (Norman Reedus) and David Herold (Marcus Hester) are at Secretary of State William Seward’s mansion. Payne attempts to stab Seward, but fails to kill Seward. The drunken George Atzerodt (John Michael Weatherly) doesn’t attempt to kill Andrew Johnson (Dennis Clark), the vice president. Lincoln dies as the four men attempt to escape.
The hysteria that followed Lincoln’s assassination was only just above mob justice. Anyone who had contact with Booth or Herold during their escape were brought in and thrown into jail. From all these people, the defendents were narrowed down to eight: Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Edmund Spangler, and Mary Surratt.
Johnson, now president, ordered a military tribunal to decide their fate. While Lincoln had been a self-educated lawyer, Johnson was a self-educated man who had become an prosperous tailor. His wife had improved his literacy and arithmetic skills; he was not a man who understood the difference between civil and military law. To be fair, Attorney General James Speed felt a military tribunal was justified because of the military nature of the assassination plot.
Mary Surratt’s defense was also hampered by her attorney’s inexperience. Aiken had only just become a lawyer and has no experience in trial cases. More importantly, in the movie, he isn’t eager to defend Mary Surratt. He eventually is won over, believing in his client’s innocence despite her unwillingness to fully cooperate.
Aiken questions the use of military law on civilians throughout the trial and you get the feeling that Surratt (Robin Wright) is being used as bait to lure her son, John, out of hiding.
This might be slow going for some because this is a legal drama, not a war film. Solomon doesn’t make us listen to each of the 366 witnesses who testified; there were few witnesses against Mary Surratt. The trial lasted only seven weeks. All eight were found guilty but only four were sentenced to hang: Mary Surratt, Powell, Herold and Atzerodt. The irony is that her son was later brought to trial, but not found guilty. Would Mary Surratt have been found guilty in civil court?
Redford’s film was perhaps too sympathetic to Mary Surratt’s predicament, according to Jeffrey S. Williams, an enthusiastic Civil War Reenactment volunteer. Williams lists what he feels were inaccurate in the movie. “The Conspirator” does have a website with an educational resource section.
Redford doesn’t, however, make Surratt a weak woman. Wright’s Mary Surratt is a woman who isn’t telling all her secrets and is unwilling to blame her son. You feel her intelligence and inner strength. The emotional weight of the movie falls upon Evan Rachel Ward as her daughter, Anna. Anna must bear the negative public attention and the threat of her mother’s death, lost in a world where she doesn’t have a vote. Her whole family has deserted her. Ward gives a sense of vulnerability, but she’s not the damsel in distress and Aiken isn’t her shining knight.
The movie does make clear the central legal issue: that defendants need fair, competent representation and that civilians should be under civil law (not martial law). As a result of this military tribunal proceedings, the Supreme Court found that where civil courts are operational, military tribunals cannot be used (In the 1866 Ex Parte Milligan decision). During times of war, civilians tend to suffer when their civil rights are suspended. That was true during the Civil War and is true now. If citizens suffer, then democracy suffers and no one can expect justice. Redford has made a thoughtful though inaccurate legal drama. It makes a good companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” “The Conspirator” is currently available on Netflix for instant viewing.