There’s something appropriate, if not prophetic, in the fact that the Confederate cemetery in Richmond is called Hollywood. From the inception of American cinema, the Civil War has provided narrative fodder and an inexhaustible supply of action, emotion and heightened drama, leading to a perfect marriage of history and myth.
From the Lost Cause revisionism (and noxious racism) of “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” to Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator,” opening Friday, movies have shaped and in some cases blatantly distorted what we know about the conflict, defining its contours and meaning as much by the stories they don’t tell as the stories they do. By way of consensus at the box office, film exerts a singular ability to create public memory — and, just as often, collective amnesia.
Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, James McAvoy, Robin Wright and other stars walked the red carpet at the premiere of Director Robert Redford's new movie "The Conspirator" at Ford's Theater. The historical drama focuses on the plot behind President Lincoln's assassination. (Haley Lesavoy/ The Washington Post)
Both impulses play out in “The Conspirator,” a handsome, somber production that illuminates one of the most fascinating and overlooked aspects of the Abraham Lincoln assassination — which, as fate would have it, occurred 146 years ago this week. Although the crime is commonly attributed to the actor John Wilkes Booth, it was a much larger plot, which entailed not just killing Lincoln but also his secretary of state and vice president. The secular Passion Play that unfolds with familiar fatalism in the opening scenes of “The Conspirator” was, Redford reminds audiences in that same sequence, in reality an attempted coup.
One of the accused participants in that plot was Mary Surratt, who ran the boarding house on H Street where Booth and his cohorts often stayed and met, and whose son John was a prodigious Confederate spy and courier. Surratt, portrayed with grim focus by Robin Wright, was rounded up with other conspirators, put into military prison and tried by a military tribunal that convicted her and sentenced her to death. Although members of the panel went on to recommend that her life be spared, she was hanged, going down in history as the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government.
It’s an engrossing, surprising story that Redford relates with a combination of gauzy, high-toned drama and taut courtroom encounters. He’s enlisted a first-rate cast in “The Conspirator,” including James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, a Union war hero who was assigned to defend Surratt at trial. Kevin Kline is nearly unrecognizable as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. But the movie chiefly belongs to Wright, who delivers a bravely unsentimental performance as Surratt, an industrious widow, devout Catholic and staunch Confederate supporter who came from a slave-owning family in Maryland. To her credit, Wright doesn’t resort to any tricks to win the audience over to Surratt; she’s resolutely unsmiling, focusing her eyes on the middle distance, rarely shedding a tear.
Redford, for his part, doesn’t exhibit quite such disciplined reserve. Although “The Conspirator” hews scrupulously to the public record and doesn’t seem to have played fast and loose with the most important facts, the director uses his artistic license to slightly shade meanings and emphases to meet his narrative and allegorical needs.