A friend and colleague of mine just showed me this unexpectedly inspirational notebook cover from the Surratt House Museum.
There’s no I in “team,” but there are three of them in “conspiracy to assassinate the president.”
…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.
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.
Last night I went to a movie with my mom and saw the trailer for The Conspirator. It looked pretty good. (Of course, the trailers always look pretty good, which is why I ended up shelling out money to see that Clash of the Titans remake on opening night.)
When the movie screened at the AHA meeting, the topic of slavery and popular memory of the Civil War came up, according to a piece posted earlier this month at HNN:
As one AHA member observed, is it really possible to make a film about the Civil War era and not mention the word slavery? The Southern Surratt family had been slaveholders before falling into more difficult economic times, but this fact is not alluded to in the film. Instead, Aiken observes that he is as dedicated to his cause (the Union) as Surratt is to her cause. However, the cause to which Surratt has pledged herself and her family is never identified. Thus, it is possible for viewers to provide alternative answers to this question which deny the centrality of the slavery issue to the origins of the Civil War. Those who attended a secessionist ball in Charleston, South Carolina may assert that they are commemorating a commitment to states’ rights rather than celebrating an effort to preserve the institution of slavery. And The Conspirator fails to offer any cinematic challenge to such an assumption. One may view The Conspirator free from the disturbing questions of race and slavery. Perhaps this will make the film appealing to a larger audience, but it will do little to foster popular understanding of the Civil War as we observe the 150th anniversary of that conflict.
That’s not to say that the film is inaccurate. In fact, the writer goes on to admit that The Conspirator “includes more accurate historical detail than most Hollywood productions.” Yet some historians are still troubled, because it doesn’t address deeper issues revolving around the causes of the war.
So can you make a Civil War movie without dealing with slavery? I’m going to suggest that you can.
Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’ll be the first to state that the debate over slavery was, in every meaningful sense, what made the Civil War happen. If there had been no controversy over slavery’s extension, there would have been no war. It’s as simple as that. Anyone who asserts that slavery had nothing to do with the war simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (To employ my own movie-related metaphor, such a person is wearing hockey pads.)
Still, I don’t think it’s necessary to address the war’s larger causes in every single attempt to tell stories about the Civil War era. This isn’t a movie about the Civil War’s causes, nor even a movie about the Surratt family’s economic background. It’s a movie about the trial of Mary Surratt. We don’t expect historians who write tactical studies of Civil War battles to address slavery’s role in the war. Nor do we expect historians who write books about the very historical themes the film tackles—namely the relationship between military arrests of civilians and constitutional issues—to do so. Why should we expect filmmakers to do it?
Apparently we expect it because films are a teachable moment. The movie, we are told, will “do little to foster popular understanding of the Civil War.” But is it really the filmmakers’ job to foster popular understanding of the war’s causes and of the debate over emancipation? I don’t think so. They’ve apparently handled the matter of the Surratt trial in a satisfactory manner, and that’s all they can reasonably be expected to do.
Furthermore, it’s worth asking whether most moviegoers are so ignorant of the importance of slavery in the coming of the Civil War that they need this film to tell them. I submit that most people who don’t affirm the critical role of slavery to the war do so not out of simple ignorance, but through a conscious and willing act of denial necessitated by needs that have little to do with a desire to understand history. I doubt that, if the film did put slavery front and center, thousands of audience members would leave the theater muttering to themselves, “Slavery caused the war? Why, I had no idea.” No, most Americans who deny that the peculiar institution brought on the conflict do so despite reams of scholarship and primary material telling them otherwise, so it’s unlikely that a movie is going to change their minds.
If historians are concerned about popular understanding of the relationship between the war and slavery—as they certainly should be—then let’s engage this topic in accessible books, exhibits, and documentaries. This is a public history issue, not a Hollywood issue.
…are now up for all to see at the Internet Movie Database.
By the way, this is the first movie released by The American Film Company, which is dedicated solely to making accurate historical pictures. They’re working on John Brown and Paul Revere projects, and they’ve got historians posting for their official blog. Check it out.
The past few days have given us a flurry of Lincoln movie news, which you can read about in a series of posts by Brian Dirck (here, here, and here). Robert Redford has a Mary Surratt film in the works, and Spielberg is still pursuing his long-awaited Lincoln project.
Coincidentally, the History Channel has been on a Lincoln assassination kick today, with one documentary on the plot to steal his body and another on Booth’s possible connections to the Confederate government. The latter is on right now; as I type this sentence, Ed Steers, Jr. is giving some on-air commentary. Steers is a diligent Lincoln researcher and the author of Blood on the Moon, a fine book that I highly recommend.
All this reminds me of a story I tell whenever the subject of Lincoln movies or the assassination come up. Steers came to the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum to lecture during my first stint there, back when I was fresh out of college. Steven Wilson (ALLM’s curator and my boss) took Steers and his wife to dinner down in Cumberland Gap that night, and allowed me to tag along.
When the conversation turned to Lincoln movies, Steven jokingly suggested we all produce our own, with himself in the role of Edwin Stanton, and me as John Wilkes Booth. Ed Steers examined me critically for a second or two, and then said approvingly, “Yeah, you’d make a good Booth!”
I was pretty flattered. Remember, this came from one of the foremost Lincoln assassination authorities in the world. Of course, he was comparing me to the murderer of the most beloved figure in American history. But still.
With an endorsement like that, you’d think either Redford or Spielberg would’ve called me by now. Maybe I should get a new agent.