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.
Although historians, including Surratt biographer Kate Clifford Larson, agree that Surratt was almost certainly guilty of conspiracy, Redford needs to court ambiguity in order for viewers to buy in to her plight, so rather than the keeper of “the nest that hatched the egg” of the would-be coup, he portrays her as a martyred mother, going to her grave rather than betray her likely culpable son (who was cooling his heels in Canada while his mother was tried and hanged).
But Redford also needs to smooth out Surratt’s rougher edges because of his larger agenda, which is to portray her trial as a miscarriage of justice that, in its prosecution of civilians in military court, selective evidence, skirting of the Constitution and abrogation of due process, bears more than passing resemblance to post-9/11 policies. From the bags put over the heads of Surratt and her fellow detainees to the Rumsfeld-esque wire-rim glasses Kline wears as Stanton, Redford’s point is clear: Regardless of her guilt or innocence, Surratt was the victim of a grievous injustice that violated the most cherished ideals of the country she was accused of trying to destroy.
To make his point, Redford skirts a few crucial realities, not the least of which is that Surratt’s treatment in the civil court of her day probably wouldn’t have been much better. But throughout “The Conspirator” he not only plays up the gray areas of her case, but portrays her prosecutors as heedlessly overreaching — rather than legitimately responding to an attempt to restart the war in a country where scattered fighting continued and in a city that was still a military garrison. Whereas Stanton is portrayed as ruthless in his attempts to “make sure the war stays won,” Aiken’s boss, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) embodies the reconciliationist ideals that Redford clearly cherishes, at one point telling Stanton, “It’s time to heal the nation, Ed, not wage more war.”
Admirable sentiments, surely. But “The Conspirator’s” mistrust of federal power doesn’t seem altogether earned and, what’s more, it takes on new meaning seen through the lens of the present day. While Redford clearly began the project with an eye toward Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the movie’s being released in a tea party-fied America, where loathing for government and cries of “Shut it down!” often teeter perilously close to the brink of secessionist fever. What was clearly intended as an allegory about civil liberties instead exists at that paranoid point where Left and Right join in mutual mistrust of a malign, unchecked government.
What disappears in that convergence is the very Union that Northern soldiers fought and died for. And when it comes to the movies, ’twas ever thus. As University of Virginia history professor Gary Gallagher gracefully proves in his book “Causes Won, Lost and Forgotten,” about how popular culture has shaped ideas about the Civil War, the preservation of the Union has never been deemed worth valorizing by filmmakers, who have historically been more drawn to Lost Cause romanticism or self-flattering stories that emphasize emancipation of enslaved people or the reconciliation of the white South and white North. (At one point in “The Conspirator,” noting the higher causes they both fought for, Surratt tells Aiken, “We’re the same,” a classic reconciliationist elision of the myriad ways the two sides weren’t the same.)
Considering the depiction of white Union soldiers in such late-20th-century movies as “Glory” and “Dances With Wolves,” Gallagher writes, “recent Civil War films fail almost completely to convey any sense of what the Union Cause meant to millions of northern citizens. More than that, they often cast the U.S. military, a military force that saved the republic and destroyed slavery, in a decidedly negative, post-Vietnam light.”
Replace “post-Vietnam” with “post-Iraq” and you get a pretty good description of how the U.S. military is portrayed in “The Conspirator.” Rather than a principle worth fighting for, or a fragile democracy still vulnerable to dead-enders who would reignite the war, the Union is painted as the nest that hatched the egg of an overweening state and arrogant abuse of power. Hollywood may be where Confederates are buried in their onetime capital, but for moviegoers, it’s still the place where the Union Cause goes to die.
(123 minutes, at Gallery Place and Georgetown) is rated PG-13 for some violent content.