Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Conspirator

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb Listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert’s Review -

The Conspirator (directed by Robert Redford, screenplay by James Solomon, story by James Solomon and Gregory Bernstein) is about the trial of Mary Surratt for her connection in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on the night of April 14, 1865. Mary Surratt (played in the movie by Robin Wright) had operated a Washington D.C. boarding house frequented by a number of the conspirators in the months prior to the assassination.

The case is of relevance today because it was conducted under the auspices of a military tribunal rather than civilian court in a charged atmosphere where the public was truly shocked by the horror of the crime. The crime involved not merely the assassination of President Lincoln but a conspiracy to also assassinate then Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. That is, it was an attempt by a band of Confederate sympathizers, led by Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth, to effectively decapitate the U.S. government just 5 days after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia signaling the final defeat of the South in the American Civil War after the fall of the Confederate capital of Richmond Virginia on April 1. As such, there was also a perceived need on the part of the U.S. government to demonstrate to any would-be Confederate sympathizers that the war was truly coming to an end and _any_ further resistance even in the form of sabotage or in today’s language, terrorism, was futile.

Yet, to make the point, Mary Surratt, arguably innocent, was put to death after a questionable trial by a military tribunal and a last minute serving of a writ of habeas corpus to force her retrial in a civil court was cancelled by President Andrew Johnson by the authority that had been granted the President during the Lincoln Presidency by the Habeas Corpus Act of 1863.

The movie is well written, well directed, staged and acted and is generally faithful to the historical record.
Initially, Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) was retained for Mary Surratt's defense.  However due to various political machinations, he ended up having to recuse himself from the case and instead asked a younger lawyer and Union combat veteran Fredrick Aiken (played by James McAvoy) to take her case. Their primary opponent was U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (played by Kevin Kline) who most fervently argued that those arrested and held for the assassination of Lincoln and the attempted assassinations of Johnson and Seward be dealt with quickly and decisively "for the sake of the nation" and "the cause of [future] peace."

Many of the same issues and concerns are, of course, being raised today, with regards to the many Moslem extremists being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (and at "undisclosed locations" elsewhere throughout the world) in connection with the 9/11 terrorist attack and other possible/probable conspiracies.

Added to the mix of issues in the movie was Mary Sarrott’s Catholicism (an unpopular and mistrusted religion in the United States at the time) as well as strong suggestion that several Catholic priests were successfully hiding the whereabouts of Mary Sarrott’s son John Sarrott, Jr, who was arguably far more involved in the conspiracy to kill President Lincoln and the others than his mother was. Asked in the movie by Aiken why the priests would be protecting Mary Sarrott’s son, Mary’s Confessor replied "and expose him to this [farce of a proceeding] as well?"

Movies like this stand or fall on basis of their faithfulness to the historical record of the Mary Surratt case. As noted above, it seems to me that in this regard, Redford’s movie does very well, and leaves viewers with much to think about.

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