It is Good Friday, April 14, 1865 in Washington D.C. Five days ago, at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. The Civil War is essentially over. But many Southern sympathizers still roil in hatred against the North. A small handful of firebrands decides murder is the way to avenge the South’s terrible defeat. One of them plans to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, but loses his nerve at the last minute. Another repeatedly stabs Secretary of State William Seward, but the old man survives. One assassin is successful—at the Ford Theatre, actor John Wilkes Booth aims his muzzle-loading derringer at President Lincoln’s head and fires.
“One bullet killed the President,” it was said. “But not one man.” There had to be a conspiracy to carry out such a heinous plot. Booth is captured in a burning barn and shot. Nine other conspirators are named. One, John Surratt, had disappeared weeks before. Eight are captured—of those, four were imprisoned, and four were hanged.
Among those last was a widow, Mary Surratt (played with incandescent fierceness by Robin Wright). She insists she is innocent. “I am a Southerner, a Catholic, and a devoted mother,” she says. “But I am no killer.” However, she was the owner of the boarding house where the conspirators met. As her accusers say, she “kept the nest that hatched the egg.” Instead of having a trial by a jury of their peers, the conspirators are handed over to a military tribunal. The tribunal, made up of war-weary generals, is under the grip of War Secretary Edwin M. Stanton (an unrecognizable Kevin Kline) who wants guilty verdicts in order to squelch other anti-government plots.
If this situation sounds eerily contemporary, it’s meant to. In interviews, director Robert Redford (Lion of the Lambs, The Horse Whisperer) has made it perfectly clear that he wanted to make an historical film that relates to today’s headlines. It’s also beautiful to look at and impossible to forget. Deceptively simple, The Conspirator achieves near-mythic impact by the extraordinary performances of its lead actors.
After the deaths of over 600,000 soldiers, and the assassination of its beloved president, many Americans feel the United States had become a “frightening country.” Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), well-respected jurist and the U.S. Senator from Maryland, is assigned to defend Mary Surratt. Feeling his personal history would distract the trial, Johnson resigns. He coerces young war hero and budding attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) to take the case. He warns Aiken, “In times of war, the law falls silent.”
Aiken reluctantly accepts the impossible task. At first he assumes Mrs. Surratt is guilty but his investigation convinces him of her innocence. Everyone knows the deck is stacked against her—in exchange for her life, the tribunal wants her to reveal where her son John Surratt is hiding. Mrs. Surratt doesn’t know and wouldn’t tell even if she did—she is his mother and will die to protect him.
In the riveting courtroom drama that makes up the bulk of the film, young Aiken fights valorously against the powerful forces holding rank against his client. He enlists the help of Mary’s teenage daughter Anna Surratt (Evan Rachel Wood). He calls in a soldier who supports Mrs. Surratt’s claims, but the man, bribed by the prosecution, lies on the stand. All Aiken’s pleas for fairness fall on deaf ears. Inexorably the tension of the film builds to an almost unbearable pitch, one heart-breaking frustration after another. Aiken’s eloquence is impressive but it can’t change minds already made up.
The evocative cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel (The Usual Suspects) captures the characteristic imagery of the times—when lawyers rode on horseback to see their clients and late night work sessions were lit by gas light. Such visual beauty is needed to balance the sadness of the story. Not until later in history does the Supreme Court insist that, even in times of war, defendants must be tried by a jury of their peers. But that decision doesn’t happen in time to save Mrs. Surratt. The anguished cries of her daughter Anna can be heard across the prison yard all the way to the gallows.