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The Conspirator

Directed by Robert Redford, at theaters nationwide

Filmmakers don’t often claim to be historians, and vice versa (unless you’re D.W. Griffith, who virtually remade Civil War memory by means of his 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation). Yet the two professions still occasionally collaborate, producing results that seldom fully satisfy the folks for whom fact trumps fiction.

So it is with Robert Redford’s otherwise well-made and admirably performed The Conspirator, about Mary Surratt’s role in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy. In many ways the movie is so good that it only falters when it pretends to be a history lesson, or more egregiously a Gitmo-era metaphor, warning that military tribunals are inherently evil.

Before the world premiere on April 10 at Ford’s Theatre, producer Joe Ricketts made it easier to criticize by insisting in his introductory speech that everything in the film was incontrovertibly true. Well, not exactly, as confirmed by the buzz among stagestruck historians at the after-party, caught between whispering about endless inaccuracies while angling for an introduction to star Robin Wright.

Credible rumor in the profession is that a cadre of experts served as advisers, correcting the obvious mistakes and inspiring a major script overhaul, only to learn that Redford preferred the original, flaws and all. A Civil War expert sitting near me at Ford’s nonetheless noted, after applauding the movie vigorously, that if we historians carp about small errors, major filmmakers like Redford will never tap historical subjects again. Worse, he implied, such nit-picking relegates scholars to the level of overzealous reenactors who insist on wearing authentic underwear even though no one else can see it.

With that in mind, let me address the positive first. Operating without a big budget, Redford fills the screen with captivating authenticity in scenery, costume, attitude and dialogue, and extracts terrific performances from Wright (as plain and strained on film as she was fabulously glamorous at the party), and James McAvoy, as the Union veteran who becomes her legal advocate and loses his pro-Union friends in the bargain. True, Tom Wilkinson plays Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson like Haley Barbour with mutton chops, but he’s enormous fun to watch. Kevin Kline may be taller and less hirsute than Edwin M. Stanton, but he’s no less fearsome. And Danny Huston endows prosecutor Joseph Holt with the menacing whisper his father John employed in Chinatown, and makes Holt only slightly less odious.

The overall result approaches a Lost Cause vision worthy of D.W. Griffith himself: The pro-slavery Southerners are dignified and determined, the Northerners bitter and brutal. For that imbalance alone, Redford himself ought to be tried by military commission.

His cinematic concept, however, is inspired. Every frame of film is made to seem cramped, and not just the scenes in Surratt’s prison cell. Her boarding house is stifling, too (no Willard Hotel lobby here). One feels equally confined in the Petersen House as Lincoln is carried through its narrow hallways and placed on his deathbed. All these people, Redford suggests, are hemmed in—by law, custom, passion, exigency or social convention—with their concepts of freedom tested anew in the ash heap of war.

For sheer brilliance, the execution scene ranks with some of the best Civil War moments ever captured on film. Every frame builds tension, from the unexpected flash of sunlight blinding the doomed Surratt as she emerges into the yard, to the loud opening of an umbrella, the barely audible whimpers of the condemned as their nooses are tightened, and the final cutting off of light—the ultimate claustrophobic moment in the film—when Surratt is hooded. Moment by moment, the vignettes build to a terrifying climax. This scene may convert more people to oppose capital punishment than the collected speeches of Mario Cuomo.

That said, why portray Surratt as a maltreated prisoner, forced to sleep on the floor of her cell, restrained by ball and chain, when in fact she had a room with a bed? Why claim her lawyer was denied private time with his client when that wasn’t so? Why denigrate the powerful evidence against her—like her “failure” to recognize co-conspirator Lewis Paine? Then too, Redford cast a slight actor to play him, when the real Paine was a giant with matinee-idol looks. And why not have just one character make the point that anyone who admits plotting a kidnap scheme that ends in death, like Redford’s Suratt, is indeed guilty of murder?

Instead, Redford awards Surratt the pardon she never got from Andrew Johnson. She emerges as less a racist traitor than the earth mother to an ungrateful son, a martyr to a distorted justice system. Such manipulation doesn’t descend to the level of Oliver Stone, but it certainly isn’t Ken Burns either. Perhaps worst, in one of those tendentious post-fadeout “crawls” that plague nearly every “fact-driven” film now, we are lectured that the Supreme Court later ruled no U.S. citizen could ever be tried by military tribunal.

Left unspoken is the fact that Booth’s conspirators never considered themselves U.S. citizens, but enemy agents. Besides, no court ever overturned the verdict against Surratt. Now Redford attempts to do so, and his movie will win fans and converts. My advice is to enjoy the film—with guilty pleasure, if necessary. But take it as historically accurate gospel at your peril.


Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here