With all that’s been written about the Lincoln assassination, it’s a tribute to Robert Redford and his producers that they found a compelling new angle to explore in The Conspirator. The film, which opens in theaters April 15, focuses on Mary Surratt, the woman who ran the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth conspired with others, including Surratt’s son, in the plot that took President Lincoln’s life 146 years ago.
This is the first feature from the American Film Company, founded in 2008 by Joe Ricketts, former CEO of Ameritrade, and dedicated to making historically accurate movies from the pre-colonial era to more contemporary events. Much of the dialogue in the trial comes from transcripts of the proceedings. Early in the film, lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McEvoy), who valiantly defends Surratt and comes to believe in her innocence, is introduced as a war hero who had two horses shot out from under him. That description was taken from his obituary, which ran in The Washington Post, and where after leaving the law he served as the newspaper’s first city editor. “We strive for historical accuracy top to bottom,” said executive producer Webster Stone. “All the characters are real. In Hollywood, much of it is not true. This is the exact opposite.”
The script for The Conspirator was written 18 years ago and languished without a home. When the American Film Company sent it to Redford as its proposed debut film, he immediately read it and liked it, said Stone, in part because it sheds new light on well-known information. “Did you know it was a kidnapping plot?” Stone asked an audience at an recent screening in Washington, D.C. Not many hands went up. The film accurately depicts the assassination of Lincoln as part of a broader conspiracy that began as a kidnapping plot to hold Lincoln as ransom in exchange for the release of all Confederate prisoners.
Much of the drama takes place in the courtroom, where the young attorney Aiken, at first reluctant to defend a woman he saw as a traitor, is pressed into service by Virginia Sen. Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who tells him that for justice to be served, “She needs a Yankee captain like you.”
When Aiken first meets Surratt in her jail cell, he tells her, “All I know is what I read about you in the papers, and it’s not flattering.”
“Is it Transformers? Admittedly, no,” said executive produce Webster Stone. “If you accuse me of having made an old-fashioned movie, yes, I will confess to that heinous crime.”
Robin Wright portrays Surratt as a stoic and sympathetic figure, certain to win over filmgoers just as she did her lawyer. Wright’s riveting performance amplifies the dilemma Surratt faced as she sought through her silence to protect her guilty son.
Stone said Redford was “deep, deep into the material,” and that he found the conflict compelling between Surratt’s rights as an individual versus the need to keep the country together and inflict swift punishment. The arguments then echo today’s debate over military tribunals and the rights of detainees. Surratt was hanged, despite her apparent innocence, and the scene is both vivid and lurid as onlookers celebrate.
The nation had never executed a woman, and until Surratt heads to the gallows, Aiken thought he could save her. But the heavily bearded Civil War generals who acted as judge and jury never had any intention of sparing her. And even though Aiken succeeds in getting her a writ of habeas corpus, insuring a new trial by her peers, President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, overturns it, and she dies along with the other conspirators.
“What is happening to Mary Surratt is an abomination. You have predetermined her fate,” Aiken tells Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline). “Fine words for rallying a nation,” Stanton replies, “not for governing and keeping a nation together. Someone must be held accountable.”
The success of films like The King’s Speech, The Social Network, Milk, and Frost/Nixon, are recent evidence an appetite for feature-length depictions of historical events. The Conspirator is a courtroom drama, so much of the action is contained, a departure for Redford, a questioner observed after the screening in Washington.
“Is it Transformers? Admittedly, no,” said Stone. “If you accuse me of having made an old-fashioned movie, yes, I will confess to that heinous crime.” He pointed out that Redford came of age cinematically in the films of the late ’60s and ’70s. “He’s about story and great acting, not action.”
For those interested in action, the company’s next film is Midnight Rider, about Paul Revere, “a swashbuckling adventure, a nice antidote to this,” said Stone.
Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for Newsweek. Follow her on Twitter.