Law in the Time of Lincoln ~ Movie Review of ‘The Conspirator’

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on July 8, 2011 0 Comments

‘The Conspirator’ is about the defense of Mary Surratt the first woman executed by the U.S. government for her role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  To be an Honest Abe, I liked the film better right after seeing it than I did after doing basic research for this review. 


          The film opens with dead and injured Civil War soldiers scattered on a field after battle.  Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is comforting his friend who is near death.  When the medical cleanup crew comes to collect the injured Aiken insists that his friend be taken care of first despite his own gunshot wound to the gut – thus establishing him as the quintessential good guy.  It is important to institute this in the minds of the audience because soon he will be defending Surratt.  The bulk of the story begins as war is on the verge of ending and Aiken is a rising lawyer on the Washington scene.  He is surrounding by friends, including the one he rescued on the battlefield, along with a pretty little miss (Alexis Bledel) who looks like she is but a knee drop away from being Mrs. Aiken.  Everything is coming up roses at a party populated by several members of Lincoln’s cabinet when someone causally comments that Lincoln’s wife preferred going to a play than the fete, therefore explaining Honest Abe’s absence.  Besides that, how did you enjoy the performance Mrs. Lincoln?  (Old family quip used whenever things went array.)


        Although most Americans remember that Lincoln met his doom through the gun of John Wilkes Booth, few might remember that the group of conspirators also targeted Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward and Ulysses S. Grant (who was supposed to attend the play with Lincoln but canceled).  Seward was the only other one attacked and although he was recuperating from a carriage accident he survived his attack partly due to the iron contraption he was wearing.  He did receive facial wounds.  In the film this is all played out for the audience except I don’t remember the movie explaining why Seward was in bed with, to modern eyes, looks like a medieval contraption around his head nor do I think they explained that Grant was supposed to be at the theater with Lincoln.  Ergo my complaint about these sorts of historic movies about actual events where the audience is aware of the event, but not the larger picture is because certain elements portrayed on the screen for entertainment value are often misleading in regards to historical fact.  Despite the intended purpose of a movie such as this, it becomes an educational tool.  However when facts are omitted to change the story’s scope it does an injustice to the viewer.  What is further mystifying to me is that after doing a general Wikipedia search of Mary Surratt  the story of her trial is far more interesting than the one presented in the movie.


        Instead of telling a more truthful story, perhaps making Surratt the central character in the drama instead of Aiken, the movie ends up being a mid-nineteenth century ‘Law & Order’ episode.  Tom Wilkinson is cast as Reverdy Johnson who early on is Surratt’s attorney, however he is a southern Senator who had refused to sign a loyalty oath and therefore feels he can’t represent Surratt in the manner that an American citizen deserves.  He convinces Aiken to take on the case although he is a novice attorney and that the taking of the case can potentially destroy his career before it even begins.  Since ‘A Few Good Men’ has been playing a lot on cable, I identified a thread of Tom Cruise’s Lt. Daniel Kaffee in Aiken – you know, the lawyer who doesn’t care about the fate of his client and then ‘click’ is willing to move heaven and earth so that they get a fair shake in a trial.  However, in the storyline I never felt that ‘click’ when Aiken goes from not caring to caring.   I suppose the moviemakers were hoping the scene with Surratt swearing on her Bible that she is innocent is supposed to be that ‘click’ but it just doesn’t feel natural.  If we are to believe that Aiken starts to feel a son’s tenderness to this rebel mother figure then there should have been some indication as to his relationship with his own mother.  Is pity the motivator?  If so than it really is a poor one because it is like asking Americans to feel pity for Osama bin Laden because he was allegedly on dialysis before his death.  The main problem with showing compassion for Surratt is that she may have been guilty (at least knew about the plot) although the film tends to skew that she was more innocent than guilty and it was her son who was the true conspirator of the family…yet he is nowhere to be found.


         I think one of the bigger problems is that the audience isn’t really given a timeline for the events within the framework in the film.  For instance, I imagine we would gain a greater appreciation for the Herculean task that is thrown at Aiken’s feet.  Speaking of tasks, in reality Surratt was represented not only by Aiken but also John Clampitt.  In the film Aiken is represented as a competent, though young, attorney but according to some historians the defense in the case messed up by not asking key witnesses the sequence of events in rebuttal.  Further, several people testified during the trial some of whom were the former slaves working as servants in the Surratt home.  Talk about an interesting dichotomy; former slaves testifying as to the innocence or guilt of their former mistress!  The film shows nothing of this.    


       Usually I can respect a director (Robert Redford in this case) and a cinematographer (Newton Thomas Sigel) trying to get the look of a historical event just right, however when the atmosphere interferes with the audience being able to see the film I think they need to take it down a few notches.  On one discussion thread for ‘The Conspirator’ people complained that some of the scenes were blurry, which I didn’t think was the case as much as the scenes were clouded with smoke from the cigars of the military men who made up the tribunal.  I’m sure this is completely accurate; for those of us old enough to remember when people freely smoked in confined spaces, we can recall how the smoke would hang in the air just so, especially gathering in a thick veil by streaks of sunlight.  Since a good chunk of the drama takes place in the confined courtroom where everyone was dressed in muted colors the feeling with the smoke is not only oppressive (which I’m sure Redford wanted) but also distracting (which I’m sure he didn’t want).


        I believe this movie could have been saved if it had changed the main character from Aiken to Surratt.  I think there were some key opportunities that could have been used that would have made the story more interesting to a modern audience.  For instance, Surratt had huge troubles with menstruation while incarnated and this later determined several factors such as how she was housed and how often she attended her own hearing – she wasn’t even present for her verdict because of her suffering.  Redford makes mention of this, but doesn’t delve into it (not that it should be the entire focus and probably still makes people squeamish) yet is an interesting issue.  She was a lone woman, a traitor most believed, guarded by men to be judged by them as well, while suffering from something that is uniquely female.


         I’ll also briefly mention that although her son’s ‘Where’s Waldo?’ routine plays a big part of the story, I wondered why her daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) wasn’t also on trial.  She was Surratt’s oldest child and on the night of the assassination I believe there is a scene where both women being carted away.  She also had a picture of Booth which was used to prosecute her mother.



         The acting was good and despite all of my criticism of the use of Aiken as a character, I thought McAvoy was adorable.  Although minutes after seeing the film I thought it was good, I did think there were clichés such as the girlfriend (high-fluting hussy) who abandons Aiken when it looks like he is putting it all on the line for Surratt.  I also didn’t understand some of the interaction with his friends, but assumed that there were scenes left on the cutting room floor which would have fleshed out these characters.  As noted before, it was only when I discovered the richness of material that wasn’t utilized that made me think this film wasn’t all that and a bag of chips.


       I would recommend ‘The Conspirator’ as a DVD rental or a cable viewing.  Besides my criticisms, I think this would be a horrible film to take your moms out to see this Mother’s Day weekend in Kansas City – well, unless you have issues with your mother and think it appropriate to view a story about the first woman executed by the U.S. government. 


Westerfield © 2011 

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