“The Conspirator” – Robert Redford’s new costume drama

Sunday evening I caught a showing of "The Conspirator," the new costume drama directed by Robert Redford, dramatizing the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent trial before a military commission of Mary Surratt, the Washington, D.C., boardinghouse keeper who was tried for conspiracy to murder the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State.  I am a sucker for historical fiction on the screen, especially when it is as well done as this, and I had a marvelous time.

That's not to say that there are no historical inaccuracies in this film.  A little internet searching after I got home led me to a website that recites chapter and verse of every historical inaccurancy, large or small.  My response is that nobody expects cinematic dramatizations of historical events to be 100% accurate.  This is a dramatic presentation that is "based upon" a true story.  For reasons of drama, historical personages may be combined into fewer characters, subtle changes may be made in the way events unfolded, etc.  The big question is the degree to which overall historical truth may be distorted by the way things are presented.

In this case, I think there was some bending of historical truth to make lawyer Frederick Aiken seem more of a David against Goliath, both by eliminating the part of his second-chair legal man, and by consolidating his foes into the solitary figure of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who is interjected into the story more than the historical record would support and imbued with a single-minded determination to produce a guilty verdict and death sentences, regardless of the evidence. 

The filmmakers also, to judge by the criticisms, heavily fictionalized the part played by Surratt's daughter, Anna, having her continue to live in the boardinghouse by herself under a military guard, providing a convenient setting for drama in the visits to her house by Aiken seeking information he can use in the trial.  They also depict Surratt as more of an ambiguous figure than she may have been in real life, creating some more doubt about her guilt than the historical record may bear.

All of that said, however, and viewed on its own, I found this to be a very entertaining and informative film.  James McAvoy is wonderful in the central role of Aiken, and Kevin Kline turns in a real star turn as Stanton.  Robin Wright as Surratt creates an unforgettable character – even if not quite the character that history suggests.  At times, perhaps, Redford may be a shade too didactic in his presentation of the trial.  (Is this a movie that only a law professor could love?  Perhaps I can plead guilty to that.)  But I think it does a good job of illustrating some of the shortcomings of using a hand-picked military tribunal to try civilians.  While it is possible to argue that the alleged conspirators were plausibly believed to be carrying out a plot hatched by the Confederacy, and that — since Confederate generals were still at large and there were still troops in the field months after Lee's surrender of the Army of Virginia — hostilities were still going on, nonetheless the civilian courts were operating and there was not, technically, any declaration of war in effect.  (The Confederate rebellion was not considered by the United States government to be a war between sovereign powers, because the government refused to recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government, Lincoln taking the position that states could not leave the union without the consent of the remaining states.)  Military tribunals are supposed to be used to try military personnel for crimes commited against the law of war during wartime…. Well, perhaps it's a close call in this case.  But one can only sympathize with the position of young Aiken, attempting to mount a defense in a court which rules "incorrectly" on every evidentiary objection he raises, and in which the "judges" were all Generals selected by the Secretary of War with the intentional of reaching a guilty verdict regardless of the evidence.  As presented here, Stanton believed that it was necessary to try the alleged conspirators quickly, hang them and plant them, so as to stamp out any thought by Southern sympathizers that they could get away with further attempts on federal officials and reassure the people of the north that swift vengeance had restored public order after the shocking events.

Numerous important historical personages are left out, but if one comes to the film fresh without having dipped first into the historical accounts, one will encounter a powerful retelling of an important (and little-known) facet of American history.  Even though it could have been better on the accuracy front, I thought it was a reasonably good effort and one that people should try to see.

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