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Movie Review

It was a conspiracy so broad, so ambitious that it feels more like a season of 24 set in Civil War times than something you'd read about in history class. The plot called for the assassination of the United States president, vice president and secretary of state—a massive blow that the conspirators hoped would bring the country to its knees. It didn't work. But it cost us perhaps our greatest statesman, Abraham Lincoln.

And the entire plot was allegedly hatched in Mary Surratt's parlor.

The Conspirator is based on Surratt's trial—one held before a military tribunal, not a jury of her peers. "I am innocent," she tells the tribunal. But is she? On the surface, it would seem unlikely. She owns the boarding house in which the conspirators met. Her son, John, was ringleader John Wilkes Booth's right-hand man. She's a southerner, sympathetic to the Confederate cause. She simply doesn't pass the smell test. She seems guilty, guilty as sin.

But is she?

Does it matter? The country is in shock, in mourning. And in its grief, it calls out for justice, for vengeance, for blood. America has decided that she is guilty. It needs her to be guilty. Best make it official and move on.

But is she?

Someone needs to defend her whether she's guilty or not. It's the American way, after all … the right to a fair, impartial trial. So Maryland senator Reverdy Johnson takes her case—much to the shock of his new adjunct, war hero Frederick Aiken.

"The military trial of civilians is an atrocity," huffs Johnson.

"No, what they did is an atrocity," Freddy says, speaking of the president's murder.

Imagine Freddy's surprise, then, when Johnson elects to hand the case off to him: He must defend a woman whom he believes—whom he needs to believe—is guilty.

But is she?

The question eats at Freddy's conscience. Johnson tells Freddy that if he can prove to himself that she's guilty, he'll let the war hero stand down and pass the defense to someone else. But there must be no doubt. And doubt, a reasonable doubt, proves to be a difficult thing for Freddy to squelch. As he talks with her and her daughter, as he watches the underhanded mechanisms of the court chip away at the woman's case, Freddy becomes an impassioned protector—risking his own social and professional standing to defend a woman most consider a traitor.

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Positive Elements

If you stripped The Conspirator down to its essence—worked past whether its history is accurate or not (and it seems to be, mostly), past the point of whether it's an anti-war polemic (and it could be seen as such), past the costumes and sets and scenes and characters, you find yourself left with one really important message: Innocence isn't determined through vote or writ, and it's always worth fighting for.

Freddy knows something about fighting. In the Civil War, he fought as a Union soldier and returned home a hero—a courageous patriot whose loyalty to the Union could never be questioned. So when he's asked to defend Mary it feels to him as if he's been asked to switch sides—to fight for the enemy.

But as the trial wears on, he grows to believe that there's something patently unfair about how Mary's being tried. Since when are civilians tried before a jury of military men (who've just fought in a brutal war against those who would readily upend their commander in chief)? Since when is the prosecution given a month to prepare their case, and the defense merely a day or two? Since when is evidence withheld from the defending attorney?

Aiken knows that to get at the truth, Mary needs a fair trial. So he tries to defend her to the best of his ability. He presses on, even when he loses his girlfriend and must endure the enmity of Washington, D.C., society. And when he realizes it's hopeless to get Mary a fair shake now, he works to keep her case—and her—alive.

"Do you believe she's innocent?" someone asks him.

"I don't know," he says. "But if we don't get another trial we'll never know."

Spiritual Content

Mary is Catholic—a strike against her in the eyes of the mostly Protestant public of her time. Her priest visits her in her cell ("The Lord is with you," he tells her), and she often carries a crucifix in her hands—even to the gallows. Before her hanging, Mary tells her daughter, "I'll always be with you." And upon trading Bible verses with Freddy, she lauds him for his knowledge.

Indeed, the Bible is an impetus for Freddy's slow change in attitude toward Mary. But it's wisdom doesn't stop some of Mary's church members from further conspiring to hide her son and others involved in the killing.

Sexual Content

Lying wounded on a Civil War battlefield, Freddy begins to tell a joke that revolves around the "pearly gates" and infidelity as a way to keep another wounded soldier conscious and alive. The punchline is never delivered.

Violent Content

Violent historical scenes are reenacted, most prominently the assassination of Lincoln. We see Booth point a gun at the president and pull the trigger. Then Booth leaps off the balcony and onto the stage, where he breaks his leg. We see Lincoln being carried out of the theater by soldiers, a blood-soaked cloth pressed against his head by a bloody hand. Later, Booth meets his end in a burning barn—after being shot in the back by a Union soldier.

Seward's attack is also shown. A would-be killer shoots a man guarding the secretary of state's room, barges in and begins stabbing the unfortunate convalescent—with some blows deflected by Seward's neck brace. (Historians tell us Seward's life was saved by that brace, which he wore because of a previous carriage accident.)

We see bloodied corpses and injured soldiers on a Civil War battlefield. We see convicted criminals hanged: The camera records their last moments, including the sickening drop.

In flashback mode, conspirators have a heated argument that leads to weapons being drawn. A rock is thrown through a window. A son pushes his mother and sister down to get past them.

Crude or Profane Language

Two s-words. Characters also say "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑" and "b‑‑ch," and they use God's name inappropriately at least twice.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Characters drink wine, champagne, beer and other alcoholic beverages at parties and get-togethers. An administration official cautions a soldier to "keep [the vice president] away from the liquor." One of the prosecution witnesses testifies that Mary asked him to keep some bottles of whiskey ready for the night of April 14—the night the assassinations were set to be carried out. In turn, he's accused of being a drunkard.

Other Negative Elements

Somebody talks about how Freddy once mooned the Confederate army.

Conclusion

Frederick Aiken failed in his bid to save Mary Surratt—both in this film and in real life. On July 7, 1865, she became the first woman to be hanged in the United States, even though the jury recommended her sentence be commuted to life in prison (due to her age and gender). A year later, the Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to try a civilian before a military court when a civil court was available.

With those 19th century politics serving as its backdrop, The Conspirator will by seen by some as another critique of the 21st century Iraq War and the policies it spawned: controversial military tribunals, suspension of certain suspects' rights, laws trimming back some civilian privacy rights, etc. The film suggests that the government—spearheaded by the very Dick Cheney-like war secretary Edwin Stanton—railroaded Mary and may have even been involved in a conspiracy of its own to send her to the gallows.

"Obviously, I could see the parallels to the present, and I knew that this could be dangerous for me, because people see me as a liberal and might pigeonhole me and the film as having some partisan point of view," director Robert Redford told Parade magazine. "But I don't feel that the political films I've made have been partisan criticisms of the left or right, but criticisms of the political process itself. I'm not inventing anything—I'm putting a spotlight on it. The other factor for me, having experienced what I've experienced in my lifetime, is how could I not see patterns in our history? And one of the biggest patterns I've noticed is that whenever there's chaos, there's ambiguity, and where there's ambiguity, there's fear. And fear gets manipulated."

That's interesting. But more interesting to me is setting aside any intended parallels with current affairs and looking at what The Conspirator teaches us outside the world of politics. "In times of war the law falls silent," prosecutor Joseph Holt says near the end of the film. And so The Conspirator sets up a conflict between those who revere the law—those who think it was written, in Reverdy Johnson's words, "precisely for times like this"—and those who believe that, at times, the law must take a backseat for (what they see as) the greater good.

Stanton, here, is no cardboard villain, and Mary never comes across as exactly innocent. And we're properly asked to wrestle with that. Who are they really? Is Mary capable of conspiring with killers?

Neither is this film a hollow Hollywood construct, filled with sex and violence and foul language for the mere sake of "entertainment." As a history flick with meat on its bones, it stays true to the more genteel decorum of the day it depicts. And it leaves us to gnaw on the gristle and grit of what makes people do what they do, even when what they do goes down in history as the worst things possible. We may never know for sure whether Mary Surratt was guilty. But the film defends her well, and it forces us—a makeshift jury 150 years after the fact—to consider.

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