Politics At The Movies: The Conspirator

The Conspirator

Directed by Robert Redford
If somebody told you a story involving a plot against the administration, captured killers, imprisonment under tough conditions, assumptions of guilt, arguments about military tribunals versus civilian trials, limited access to legal counsel, and the constitutionality of various proceedings, you’d probably think of terrorists, Guantanamo Bay, and a story set in the present. But “The Conspirator” is set in 1865 and recounts certain events following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Many people know the basics of the assassination, that Lincoln was shot by the actor John Wilkes Booth during a performance at the Ford Theater. Fewer know that it was part of a coordinated attempt to kill not just the President, but also the Vice President and the Secretary of State. Or that it was the second of two conspiratorial plans, the first of which had been to kidnap Lincoln and hold him hostage in an attempt to force the North to free Southern prisoners.

It’s also worth remembering that in 1865, as the Civil War was coming to a close, this wasn’t a country that had vanquished a distant enemy on foreign shores, this was a country that was severely divided internally, with neighbors and acquaintances falling on different sides of the North-South divide, if not in terms of geography, then in terms of opinion. We think our politics are partisan now, but at least we’re not fighting each other on bloody battlefields.

One of Wilkes’ alleged co-conspirators was John Surratt, who had briefly succeeded his father as postmaster of Surrattsville, Maryland (now Clinton), before later becoming a courier for the Confederacy. Because of John’s involvement in the earlier kidnapping plot, at least some of the meetings of the conspirators took place at the boarding house run by his mother Mary. Following the assassination, and in the absence of John who had previously left the area, Mary Surratt was arrested and held because of her suspected involvement in the plot. This is where the story picks up as a legal case, because the evidence against Mary Surratt was largely circumstantial and perhaps even fabricated or exaggerated.  

At its core, “The Conspirator” is a courtroom drama and a battle of wills, not just between the prosecution and the defense, but also between the defendant and the defense counsel, and the defense counsel and his social circle. Mary Surratt was tried in a military court with evidence introduced that seems, at best, at least partially questionable. In the film, those proceedings are kept relatively simple, with few witnesses and focused entirely on the case against Mary Surratt, although one can go online and find transcripts of the entire trial proceedings against the conspirators that run in excess of 1,000 pages.

Mary Surratt is played by Robin Wright Penn, her young defense counsel by James McAvoy, and the government’s prosecution is led by Danny Huston. Kevin Kline plays Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who is depicted as the architect behind the trial and convictions of the conspirators, and Tom Wilkinson plays Reverdy Johnson, Maryland Senator and the senior lawyer who convinces McAvoy’s Frederick Aiken to defend Mary Surratt.

This is a compelling story of multiple ethical dilemmas – of the rule of the constitution in times of extreme stress and hardship (and at a time when the document was a lot newer than it is now), of the need to mount a vigorous defense of a questionable defendant purely on the principle that everybody deserves to be defended, especially when the trial appears so unbalanced to begin with, and of the stresses within families when one has to choose to defend one family member at the possible expense of another.

Mary Surratt, and the other defendants, had already been effectively tried in the press and in public opinion. It was an act of virtual self-sacrifice, in terms of becoming a social outcast, to defend her within an already decided Washington society, especially against a stacked deck in military court.

Director Robert Redford and members of the cast were interviewed on CNN by Piers Morgan. During that interview, Penn made the comment that, “It almost becomes irrelevant – her innocence – it’s about civil liberties.” The issues raised do seem remarkably contemporary. Kline referenced the parallels to today’s military tribunals, but made the point of stating that military tribunals have changed in the intervening years, with more of a burden of proof. Redford repeatedly avoided those parallels, instead focusing on the relationships in the film, saying, “I think the parallels in the film are several and obvious … if I start talking about the parallels, people are going to assume it’s a leftist film” (a realistic fear after the weak reception of his “Lions for Lambs”).

Interestingly, as the film points out ahead of the end credits, although much of the interest during the trial seemed more focused on the missing John Surratt than on his mother, with her seeming to be almost a surrogate for him, he was later acquitted on similar charges after a Supreme Court ruling that civilians be given civilian trials.  

In a local Sacramento connection, this same story was filmed in a short format by Chris King and his team at Watermark Films under the title, “The Killing of Mary Surratt.” That film has achieved significant success on the film festival circuit, and is available for purchase online at

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