Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Conspirator (Deluxe Edition) (2011)

The ConspiratorWhen I went to see this movie I knew nothing about it. The trailer merely indicated a period courtroom drama starring James McAvoy.

While I would hesitate to call it one of the best movies of the year, undoubtedly this movie or more precisely the story this movie relates impacted me more deeply than most do. So much so that I have bought several books on the subject to get as full an understanding of this event as possible.

As an experienced director and actor Robert Redford knows how to push the audiences buttons, making socially relevant, and relatable movies.

Here then a true story of a divided country just arrived at an uneasy peace after a bitter civil war, when recently reinaugurated President Lincoln is suddenly assassinated by an actor in a theater. Not only is the president assassinated, there is a simultaneous attempt to murder the Secretary of State Seward, and Vice President Johnson.

As the manhunt begins for Booth, and his accomplices, suspicions turn to a young known associate John Surratt. Police go to his house, and in his absence end up arresting his mother Mary Surratt for being complicit in the crime of which he is suspected. But is she guilty of being a conspirator, or just guilty of being a mother of an alleged one, an innocent running a boarding house where these conspirators would meet?

She is remanded to be tried in a military court. Frank Aiken, a young veteran of the Union Army, becomes her unwilling counsel. Her rights to a jury trial in a civilian court overruled, one can sense that the odds stacked against her. It's a desperate situation. Her guilt appears to be a foregone conlusion. She is not permitted to testify in her own defencse. Will her son return and save the day? If you're like me these are some of the questions that may run through your mind as you watch this movie.

Other people arrested with her testify for the state implicating her in the conspiracy. These people are not themselves charged. An alcoholic bartender, John Lloyd, very lucky not to be charged himself firmly impicates her with extremely damning uncorroborated testimony. A boarder Louis Weichman testifies that some of the conspirators met at her house on numerous occasions. But if he knew so much how come he did not report his suspicions to the authorities in advance?

Probably most shocking for me was new President Johnson, suspending a writ of habeas corpus written by a judge, on a matter of life and death, a precedent ironically set by Lincoln to be used in wartime, now used to seal the conspirators fates in peacetime.

I found this interference by the executive office in a judicial proceeding to be most surprising and shocking, and difficult to believe, but it turns out to be true. I checked.

For dramatic purposes, some minor but significant facts have been altered. For example, Mary Surratt had two counsel not one. In addition, there were eight people on trial not four. The four not included in the movie were given life sentences, and those surviving would ultimately be pardoned by President Johnson within four years.

One life sentence to Dr Mudd, 'his name is mud,' who treated Booth's fractured leg, and another to Ned Spangler, the stage hand and stable boy asked by Booth to hold his horse, while he went into the theater.

President Johnson famously said of her, "She kept the nest that hatched the egg."

I highly recommend this movie. If you have further interest in this topic I recommend the books:

Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a tremendously lucid account of events, which ties up the loose ends, particularly what happened with John Surratt. He was tried for the same crime, in a civilian court but not on the same facts. He does explore the legal standards in defining what a conspiracy is which I found helpful, and many other things.

American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, explores not only the conspiracy, but also the life of John Wiles Booth, giving a full background.

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer (P.S.), which reads like a fast paced thriler while sticking to the facts.

To a somewhat lesser degree The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln. I have browsed through this one numerous times at the local bookstore, yet have been reluctant to buy it. For one thing, she glosses over the habeas corpus issue, giving it half a page. She does not tie up the loose end of what happened with John Surratt like Steers does. She also concludes Surratt's guilt, yet I found her reasoning somewhat suspect. Even though her book ties in with the movie, I prefer that Redford allows us to make up our own minds.

Two different people watching this movie could arrive at a totally different conclusion about Mary Surratt's complicity, and I think that's the way Redford would like it, to keep the mystery alive. It kept it alive for me.

I hope you enjoy this movie and I hope this review was helpful.

Many Americans are using the year 2011, the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, as an opportunity to reflect on the meanings of this seminal event in our history. "The Conspirator", a new movie directed by Robert Redford, examines the end of the Civil War rather than the beginning. The movie is set with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 the conspiracy which planned it, and the ensuing military trials of the conspirators. The conspirators aimed to kill Vice-president Johnson and Secretary of State Seward in addition to the President and narrowly missed these goals. When John Wilkes Booth was killed, four conspirators were brought to trial including a woman, Mary Suratt, who kept a boarding house where the conspirators, among them her son, met to plan their activities. Mary Suratt's trial and the young lawyer who defended her, a Union officer in the War named Aiken, are the focus of this movie.

Mary Suratt was not an appealing defendant in any circumstances, let alone under the fear which gripped Washington after the assassination. She was an avowed Confederate sympathizer and did little to help her pleas of innocence. She argued essentially that keeping a boarding house is no crime and that she was unaware of what her boarders may have been doing behind closed doors in their rooms.

Young Aiken took the case at the behest of venerable United States Senator from Maryland, Reverdy Johnson. In the movie, Aiken at first shows substantial reluctance to become involved as he believes the evidence points strongly to Mary Suratt's guilt. Most historians who have since studied the matter share Aiken's initial reaction that Mary Suratt was guilty of conspiracy as charged. But Aiken pursues the case and sees good grounds to argue Suratt's innocence of conspiracy. He defends her with force, commitment, and great personal and professional cost to himself. Aiken fulfills the lawyerly mission of advocacy and defense for those unable to speak for themselves.

The movie moves back in forth between testimony at the military hearing, the underlying events on which the testimony is based, and Aiken's efforts on behalf of Mary Suratt. In general, the story line is easy to follow. The portrayals of Aiken, Mary Suratt, and Secretary of War Stanton are good as are the depictions of Civil War era Washington, D.C. The scene in which the four conspirators are hung is particularly effective, especially in its use of the photographer Matthew Brady. Brady took a famous grizzly picture of the four conspirators hanging from their ropes which is echoed well in the movie.

The movie can be viewed on several levels. The film offers a good portrayal of the trial of Booth's conspirators, an event which may be unfamiliar to many Americans. The movie's sympathy towards Mary Suratt does not deprive it of accuracy. "The Conspirators" also has a contemporary focus. Redford draws parallels between the denial of civil liberties and fair judical process in the period following the assassination on the one hand and events in the United States following September 11, 2001, on the other hand. Viewers of the film may work through and consider the parallels.

As a retired lawyer, the part of the movie that most interested me was young Aiken and the passion he put into Mary Suratt's defense. "The Conspirators" aptly calls attention to the nobility of the law, when well practiced. The defense of unpopular causes does not know ideological boundaries. I thought of a recent event postdating the movie in which a prestigious law firm withdrew due to pressure from the defense of a Federal statute called DOMA unpopular to some people. The distinguished lawyer assigned to the case then left the law firm so that he could continue his role of vigorous defense. It was this latter action rather than the former that met the ideals of the legal profession that Aiken followed so eloquently in his defense of Mary Suratt.

Robin Friedman

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This film's target audience is leagues beyond just the Civil War fan. "The Conspirator" draws the viewer into a period of time and forces a decision between emotions likely felt by North & South Americans of the era. Robert Redford (director/producer) takes a side-note of Lincoln and Civil War history and catapults it into a very believable, re-living, docu-drama-like, story that will touch you at a human and political level. Some viewers will despise the end, others cheer, but oddly, both sides will consider it justice. But was it?

Looking at historical accounts, one can find the story buried in the lesser known details of the War's end and a Presidential assassination. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright-`Forrest Gump') is arrested with other men and accused of a murder conspiracy. A planned attack on 3 political leaders. One, Lincoln, would die, and one woman, Mary, would be pushed toward justice at a vengeance speed. No trial by peers, but a tribunal justice, with the deck stacked hugely against innocence. Even her lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy-`Atonement' `Narnia') ex-Union fighter was chosen to hasten a guilty verdict and quick hanging. He is reluctant to defend and believes her guilty. The attorney role causes romantic troubles for Aiken, but that is a minor bit of the story. The relationship between Aiken and his client, as well as political/military figures including commission head Gen. Hunter (Colm Meeney) and War Secretary Stanton (Kevin Kline) is the basis for the masterfully written story.

This should win awards, perhaps not as individual acting moments, but overall, and on the top of the deserving list is screenplay writer James Solomon. The writing IS the story. A documentary written in dramatic dialogue. The director has brought the written masterpiece alive. The visual effects are a constant 1860s view as through tintype photographs or panoramic daguerreotypes of the era but with subtle color. That is just another stellar decision that gives this film such period authenticity and charm. It reminded me of a stage show once attended of "Scrooge" with the entire theater in a light London-like fog. Both were historically invigorating to the senses. "The Conspirator" is a towering achievement and quite appropriate in the opening days of the Civil War's Sesquicentennial. Let's hope this spurs more films related to this era, and proves that all do NOT need to be feature-length battle scenes. This is a very fast and emotional two hours of viewing.

Painstaking detail to costuming and sets are also to be regarded. In the scene of the hanging (not all tried were lynched) there is obvious consideration to actual photographs taken in 1865. This is a dramatic portrayal, but will also be considered by some to be as close to a documentary as one can get with this historic material. Top hat's off to director Redford and writer Solomon.

I was so excited about reading the preliminary accounts of this movie that I attended the second showing on opening day. It was worth the theater price, and I WILL be buying the DVD when available. See it. It's brings back Kennedy assassination memories, and yet hits true to today's politics as well. Dare I add this is educational? PG-13 and students SHOULD see this for U.S. history and civics content.

Read Best Reviews of The Conspirator (Deluxe Edition) (2011) Here

The worst thing that ever happened to the South after the Civil War was the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Far from "vindicating the South and killing a tyrant" as John Wilkes Booth and the other conspirators planned, it brought a ten year reign of hellfire down upon the South. Lincoln would doubtless have preferred "malice toward none and charity for all" but his death visited a decade of "Reconstruction" suffering upon the South, including the disenfranchisement of all who fought for the Confederacy from vindictive Republicans and Northern veterans who wanted punishment not mercy. Reconstruction poisoned race relations in the South for 100 years, but that's not a topic here. The assassination was the pivotal event that started it all.

There were a number of conspirators, John Booth, John Sarratt, etc, and one, Mary Sarratt for whom there has never been any evidence that she conspired with the others. She owned and operated a boarding house on "H" St in Washington where the other conspirators met, but had no knowledge of their plans. Nevertheless there was a witch hunt by the military and the Republicans after the assassination, who saw more such rebellions lurking under each bridge and dark shadow. The military tribunal had reached the conclusion that all would hang before the "trials" started, most deservedly, but not Mary Sarratt. Seward, one if the targets of the conspirators, who was not killed in the assassination attempts, seems particularly motivated to see her hang.

Her lawyer tried to defend her, question the "evidence", even gets a writ of habeas corpus to try her in a civilian court.

Robert Redford's movie is a tense courtroom drama, all shot authentic with available light and gaslight. Excellent acting from Robin Penn Wright as tragic Mary Sarratt, and James McAvoy as her young idealistic Northern lawyer and Yankee war veteran who nevertheless believes in her right to a fair trial.

a lesson in American history not usually taught in schools.

High recommendations

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Most American's are familiar with the Civil War and its aftermath, but one of the lesser known aspects of the Civil War is the rounding up of conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and their subsequent trial, in particular the case of Mary Surratt. This is the story Robert Redford brings us in "The Conspirator."

The story in "The Conspirator" isn't one we're all unfamiliar with. A young inexperienced lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is assigned a client he initially thinks is guilty, Mary Suratt (Robin Wright) in a conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. As facts come to light and the prosecution obviously takes liberties in trying to hide evidence, pressure witnesses, and allow for only one viewpoint of evidence, that he slowly comes to the realization that while his client maybe guilty she isn't getting a fair trial and provides a more vigorous defense then at first thought possible. John Grisham has told this story many times.

The movie is told from Aiken's point of view in his defense of Suratt, how it affects his life and relationships, and as his defense becomes more effective how he's exiled from Washington society and he starts to become suspect by his friends and the very people that appointed him to the position. In brief flashbacks we're also shown just enough of the conspiracy and the action of the conspirators that we can know what's going on.

This isn't a glamor role for Robin Wright she barely wears make up, her lips dry and parched after being in prison for a month. She plays Suratt with matronly dignity expected of a woman of the age. James McAvoy gives a strong performance as a Union Captain who comes back from war and wants to return to his private life only to be thrust back into fighting, only this time in the courtroom. Kevin Kline's Edwin Stanton is absolutely ruthless in his pursuit of the assassins of Abraham Lincoln, and we're shown that ruthlessness almost immediately when he bars the distraught Mary Todd Lincoln from the President's side after he's taken from Ford's theater. In the supporting cast Evan Rachael Wood as Anna Surrat stands out, and Stephen Root, while having a small role always makes it interesting.

Director Robert Redford shot this film beautifully, the gaslights glisten, and a couple of times looks like a Georges Seurat painting, perhaps in contrast to the cramped and war torn buildings most of the action occurs in and around.

Yes, Redford's story has resonances and similarities to today's world, but history always will be relevant to the day, and the adage that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" was never truer. "The Conspirator" reminds us of that history. But we aren't beaten over the head with a "message," Redford gives voice to both sides of the argument, with Stanton arguing that all measures should be taken to roundup the conspirators and put in front of a military tribunal in the name of expediency in healing a nation torn apart. Aiken voices the other side of the argument, of why do we fight wars in the name of freedom and liberty if we're just to put them to the side? Although, Redford leans to the side of when the world changes the constitution shouldn't.

I've read a bit about the Civil War, and thought Mary Suratt, while railroaded by Stanton, had known what her son and Booth were up to. Now, I'm not so sure.

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