So I went to see The Conspirator

…on opening night, planning to post my reaction to it here that weekend.  Needless to say, it’s taken me quite a bit longer to write it up, but it’s one of those movies you need to mull over before you can decide how much you enjoyed it.  I think it’s a film worth seeing, though I do have some qualifications.  I suppose I should say that there are some plot spoilers below, on the off-chance that anyone reading this is unaware of how the story wraps up.

This is not a movie about Mary Surratt so much as it’s a movie about Frederick Aiken, the young Union veteran appointed to defend her before a military commission which has seemingly decided her guilt before the trial even begins. The story arc is closer to a John Grisham thriller than anything else.  A young lawyer gets slapped with a mysterious and difficult client, starts poking around, comes to think there’s more going on than meets the eye, allows trouble in the courtroom to spill over into his personal life, is gradually convinced that said client is getting a raw deal, develops a bond with said client, and wages a determined courtroom battle against impossible odds.

Mary Surratt, Lewis Payne/Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt on the scaffold. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Explicitly, the movie takes no stance on the issue of her involvement in the assassination. The title character, like her historical counterpart, maintains her innocence throughout the trial, admitting only that she was aware of her son’s involvement in Booth’s kidnapping plot.  We never know with any certainty whether she’s telling the truth.  Neither does her lawyer, who admits near the movie’s end that he doesn’t know whether or not his client is an assassin.  She comes across as a sympathetic figure, more committed to preserving the life of her fugitive son than anything else.  (It’s worth noting that Robin Wright’s performance in the title role is by far the movie’s strongest asset.)  The whole story is up there on the screen, but it’s told in such a way as to generate quite a bit of reasonable doubt. Anyone who believes she was innocent will find little in the movie to offend them; anyone who believes otherwise will probably find watching it to be a frustrating though entertaining experience.

The actual case against her depended largely on the testimony of two witnesses.  One was John Lloyd, to whom she leased the tavern in Maryland where Booth’s accomplices stashed a pair of carbines.  Lloyd claimed that, a few days before the assassination, Mrs. Surratt personally informed him to have these weapons ready, since someone would be needing them shortly.  On the day of the shooting, she met Lloyd at the tavern and dropped off a package containing a pair of Booth’s binoculars, and again reminded him to make sure the firearms would be at hand that night.  Booth and Herold stopped at the tavern and retrieved these items on their attempted escape.  (Another conspirator, George Atzerodt, corroborated Lloyd’s testimony, telling authorities that Booth had informed him of Surratt’s trip for the purpose of making sure the carbines were ready.)

The other key witness was Louis Weichmann, a resident of Mrs. Surratt’s D.C. boardinghouse and a close friend of her son.  It was Weichmann who took her to Maryland on the two occasions in which she instructed Lloyd to have the carbines ready for pick-up, and who additionally testified that she and Booth conversed at the boardinghouse on the day of the assassination.  He further claimed that Booth and his accomplices often met at the house, that Mary Surratt’s son was involved in these meetings, and that the family had links to the Confederate network that operated near the capital.  Neither Lloyd nor Weichmann appear terribly credible in the movie, although in 1865 their testimony was convincing enough to send Mary Surratt to her death.

One other damning bit of evidence concerns co-conspirator Lewis Powell, who attacked and nearly killed Secretary of State William Seward on the same night Booth shot Lincoln.  In a remarkable case of bad timing, Powell arrived at the boardinghouse on the night of April 17 while troops were on hand to place Mrs. Surratt under arrest.  She claimed that she didn’t know him, but Powell frequented the house; her denial therefore did nothing to help her case.  Her lawyers tried to argue that she simply didn’t recognize him, presenting witnesses who claimed that her vision was poor.  The movie depicts this in flashback: Powell arrives at the boardinghouse and when the soldiers ask Surratt whether she knows him, she squints as if she’s taking an eye exam.  Is she faking it?  For that matter, is this a depiction of the defense’s interpretation rather than a flashback?  We’re never sure, and the fact that her innocence or culpability is never definitively established makes it difficult to emotionally invest in her plight.

And yet that’s what we’re evidently supposed to do, because the film’s real villains are the government officials attempting to railroad her: an unscrupulous Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, a coldly ruthless Edwin Stanton, and a military commission officiating over what appears to be a rubber-stamp trial.  We see the commissioners obstructing the defense at every turn, Holt goading witnesses on the stand, and Stanton manipulating the deliberations to get the result he wants.

The events on the screen roll along to their conclusion with a kind of mechanical inevitability, so the movie doesn’t have the kind of tension that characterizes classic courtroom dramas.  Of course, it’s harder to establish suspense when most audience members are already aware of the outcome, but that’s part of the challenge of using history as the basis for drama.  The Conspirator doesn’t meet this challenge as well as a film like Valkyrie, which whipped up plenty of nail-biting tension despite its pre-determined conclusion.

The film comes closest to getting us near the edge of our seats after the commission renders its verdict (or rather, after Stanton effectively renders his, since in the movie he is clearly the figure pulling the court’s strings).  In the film, Aiken frantically works to obtain a last-minute writ so that his client can have a civilian re-trial, only to have President Johnson cancel it right before the scheduled execution.  This did indeed happen, but it was only one of the twists in the attempt to save Mary Surratt’s life.  Her daughter tried to intervene with both Johnson and Holt, and several of the judges who sentenced Surratt to death wrote to President Johnson to recommend clemency.  (The fate of this recommendation is the subject of dispute; Holt claimed that Johnson refused to consider it, while Johnson claimed that he never saw it.)

The question of whether or not the government was justified in trying her and the other accused conspirators by military commission makes great fodder for historical debate, but at the time there was widespread support for utilizing military law to try the accused assassins.  Attorney General James Speed, for one, argued that a military trial was appropriate, given the nature and setting of the crime.  In 1866 the Supreme Court ruled that civilians could not be tried by military court when no threat of war existed and as long as regular courts were available, but of course this was the year after Mary Surratt and three other conspirators went to the gallows.  Perhaps it would have been moot anyway; in his fine study of the assassination, Ed Steers notes that although the use of a military commission put the accused at a disadvantage (conviction did not require a unanimous jury vote and the President of the U.S. was the only source of appeal), the actual courtroom procedures were similar to what would have been used in a civil court.

What I’ve read of the conspiracy has me pretty well convinced that Mary Surratt knew what Booth and his accomplices were up to in April 1865, and that she not only consented to the plot but helped move it along.  Perhaps if I were more skeptical of her involvement, I’d be less reserved in my praise for the movie. Still, I enjoyed it; its depictions of Lincoln’s murder and the attack on Seward are quite good, and the hanging sequence is especially powerful.  This is a worthwhile inaugural effort in the American Film Company’s goal of producing good historical films.  I think we should encourage them.  See it for yourself and decide what you think.


Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History and Memory

3 responses to “So I went to see The Conspirator

  1. Loree Huebner

    Great post. Plan to see the movie this weekend.

    “Hollywood history” is usually a twist on the real history. I encourage people to read and learn about events in history before relying on a movie as total fact.

  2. Thanks for this. I haven’t been to a movie in ages. I’ll go see this one.

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