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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Conspirator

(Three Stars)
U.S.: Robert Redford, 2010

The late Sidney Lumet, I think, would have liked Robert Redford‘s new movie, The Conspirator, a film that, like Lumet’s courtroom masterpieces 12 Angry Men and The Verdict, deals dramatically and memorably with the vagaries of the law, and with the wars between justice and injustice, between vengeance and mercy, between truth and prejudice — but one that, this time, doesn’t necessarily show us one good man (like 12 Angry Men’s Juror No. 8), prevailing against the many.

Producer-director Redford’s picture is set in 1865, in the aftermath of The Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell). And it follows, with a clear eye and a heavy artistic commitment. the famous case of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright, superb), the mother of one of the Booth cabal, John Surratt (Johnny Simmons).

Mrs. Surratt was a women who found herself accused of conspiracy and put on trial for her life with the others, mainly because she owned and ran the boarding house where they met. She was a passionate Southerner, but there was no real evidence linking her to the assassination, and in fact, it seems unlikely that Mrs. Surratt would have had a place in the plot, or that Surratt would have bragged to his mother beforehand about planning to kill the President of the United States.

Besides, even if she was involved — and, in real life, she may have been — she was a woman, she was a mother, she was older, and she had obviously lost everything: reputation, livelihood, health, honor, and worst of all, she had lost her son, who never came back to take the blame and save her life.

Yet, despite all this, in the film, Lincoln‘s coldly partisan and relentless Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline, almost unrecognizable and very powerful) wants to make sure that Mary is found guilty. He wants her condemned to death by hanging, because he feels that legal killings, as many as he can muster, are the ways to heal a country in crisis. Though his philosophy is markedly at odds with Lincoln’s own oft-stated Christian humanist compassion, Stanton does everything possible to provide those deaths, every last one of them, beginning with his insistence on a military trial rather than a civil one.

Contending against Stanton’s representative and creature in court, the slick prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), are, first, Mary’s more liberal defender, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and when Johnson leaves, his protégé, young lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy, in the best performance I have ever seen him give).

Aiken is a Union Army veteran, newly returned to his sweetheart Sarah Weston (Alexis Bedel), and he is at first unenthusiastic and reluctant about taking the case, as well as pretty well convinced of his client‘s guilt. Eventually, as more and more doors are slammed in his face, and as the noose is knotted more firmly around the neck of Mary — a woman bitterly resigned, hurt, suspicious, and unwilling even to accept court help from her daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) — he becomes obsessed with saving her, and, probably in his mind, with saving the honor of the law as well.

Stanton is equally determined that his predetermined sentence will be fully executed, his will be done, and that Mary will become the first woman, and the first mother, ever put to death by the United States Government. A dubious distinction, and he fights ruthlessly to earn it. Aiken fights as passionately to rescue her.

This story, though the facts have been at least somewhat changed or “dramatized” for the film, remains strong drama. On its own, it is a terrific historical tale, well scripted by James Solomon. The cast is first-rate and obviously deeply dedicated, and they are, all of them, very fine. Redford obviously made this movie with all his heart. The picture, economically shot, has a grim, dusty look, and, for me, it also looks a little too TV-historical-dramatic-ish. But the story and the actors are so good, it doesn’t matter.

A confession now of personal predilection. I am against capital punishment, and I believe that as long as one innocent person was unjustly executed and falsely branded forever a murderer — and we know now, thanks to advances in DNA testing, that there have been many — legal execution is an abomination, and should be replaced by any fair government with life imprisonment without possibility of parole, along with enforced reparations to the victims.

I say this knowing that if a loved one of mine were killed intentionally, I would want to kill the monster that did it with my own hands, especially if the evidence seemed certain. But I would be wrong.

Perhaps only a part of the movie’s tale is true, though, according to the (disputed) record, it’s probably a large part. So, Damn you to hell, Edwin Stanton, and even if there isn’t one, and you managed to slip away unpunished — you have been thoroughly well  indicted, prosecuted and damned here, in The Conspirator, by Redford, by Solomon, and by all the film artists and actors who made this film with them, especially Robin Wright, James McAvoy and Kevin Kline.

And damn all those who, like the movie’s Stanton, mistake power for the right, mistake cruelty for justice, mistake brutality for firmness, and mistake personal bias, prejudice and predilection for the law. May the Secretary of War lie forever in some cold, barren and comfortless grave, stripped naked and forever weaponless, in the bones and ashes and ignominy he deserves.

There is no need for a SPOILER ALERT.

We all know, or we all should know, that Mary Surratt was hanged. There was no Juror Number Eight to save her, and no universal director and scripter like Sidney Lumet and Reginald Rose to guide his arguments and to change everyone‘s minds. God watched apparently, but did nothing, for the time being.

But there is an interesting coda to the events, and it’s shown here before the end-titles: an interesting third act for Fredrick Aiken, and one especially ironic in the light of Robert Redford‘s previous career in movies. I will leave you to discover it for yourselves.

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9 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: The Conspirator”

  1. Paul Serup says:

    Based on the reviews of its screenings and the trailers, it appears that Robert Redfords’ movie is a dishonest attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Mary Surratt. She was the very first woman executed by the U S government, for her part in the Lincoln assassination. She was also a very devout Roman Catholic.
    Reports of its screenings have basically stated that the movie portrays Mary Surratt as an innocent woman who was put on trial for running a boarding house that happened to be frequented by members of Booth’s assassination conspiracy. This is frankly ridiculous. The view has been advanced that the trial of the conspirators was unfair and the government’s mood at the time meant that any accused would all be found guilty and executed. Eight people were put on trial in 1865 though and four were not executed but incarcerated. They were all freed after four years. Other who helped Booth to escape were arrested but not put on trial.
    Evidence presented at Mary Surratt’s trial showed that she was clearly guilty of being part of the plot. On the very day of the murder, she deliver a field glass, or set of binoculars, along Booth’s escape route, for him to pick up as he fled. She helped to ready other supplies including guns, for Booth’s flight. When Lewis Payne, who had attempted to kill the Secretary of State, and a man whom she knew, came to her door days later, she also claimed that she did not know him.
    Academic Kate Clifford Larson, like other serious historians, concluded that Mary Surratt was culpable. In her 2008 book, The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln, she asked a very good question, ”Why did Mary willingly participate in such a vicious plot, risking her life and the lives of her children? Her strong Southern sympathies do not adequately explain her dangerous level of involvement.”
    Charles Chiniquy, a very close friend of Abraham Lincoln, and one of the most famous men in the world during his lifetime, provided an explanation, stating that it had much to do with her Catholic beliefs. I wrote a book entitled, Who Killed Abraham Lincoln?, published in 2010, Researched over a period of 22 years, this book examines Mary Surratt’s guilt and Chiniquy’s claims.
    Chiniquy was a celebrated French-Canadian Roman Catholic priest who left the Church in 1858, along with a thousand others and was called the “Luther of America”. He became friends with Abraham Lincoln after Lincoln defended him in court. He made the stunning allegation that his former Church was behind President Lincoln’s murder. My studies show that there is very strong evidence to back up what he said. Mary Surratt remains an embarrassment to the Catholic Church, I believe, and this is an effort to change that.

  2. evelyn garver says:

    Mr. Wilmington, please read not only Kate Larson’s book but two other best sellers, MANHUNT AND AMERICAN BRUTUS. There are currently almost no reputable historians who think Surrat was innocent. Redford had to create sympathy for the character because the legal and constitutional issues around the case were not interesting enough. Please become informed before letting a movie give you history lessons.

  3. Mike Wilmington says:

    Guys, I did read alternative opinions, though admittedly not in depth. Remember, I said several times that the facts were changed or dramatized in the movie. And I also said: “Besides, even if she was involved — and in real life, she may have been…”

    But, as I also said, I think capital punishment, or cold-blooded execution by the state, is unjustified, even when an undoubted monster is the one being executed. Whatever the truth of this case, I think putting this woman to death was wrong. And so was Stanton’s interference in the trial, however deep it went.

    Remember: If a mistake is made in a court trial and sentence, and mistakes definitely have been made in capital cases, an execution wipes out the chance of ever correcting it.

    I think Redford and writer Solomon are more likely to have been motivated by political ideas and feelings than Catholic or anti-Catholic ones. But I also think it’s interesting that a movie can spur this kind of discussion rather than a debate about how cute the stars were, or how exciting the car chases.

  4. Paul Serup says:

    Well, you have helped to facilitate this discussion Mr. Wilmington and I commend you for it. I appreciate your response to the comments of myself and Evelyn Garver. It is so much better than a media organization like the Chicago Tribune, that act like a huge, cold, dead, wet blanket and is not interested in any discussion at all. Why do I say this? You declared that you don’t think that Redford or Solomon were motivated by any pro or anti-Catholic feelings. I say what I do about the Tribune because it reported on Charles Chiniquy about a hundred times and in 1887, it actually recommended that all Americans read Chiniquy’s autobiography, which alleged that the Roman Catholic Church was responsible for Lincoln’s murder, (1). Yet today, the Tribune isn’t interested in any mention of its own history.
    You argue that the death penalty is wrong. If you had been alive at the end of the Second World War, you undoubtedly would have had to oppose the Jews and others if Hitler had been captured and put on trial, not an easy position to sell.
    Of Mary Surratt’s guilt, you state “Besides, even if she was involved — and in real life, she may have been…”. Isn’t this movie supposed to be about real life? Isn’t it supposed to be historically accurate? That is how it is advertised.
    You declare that Stanton was “equally determined that his predetermined sentence will be fully executed, his will be done, and that Mary will become the first woman, and the first mother, ever put to death by the United States Government. A dubious distinction, and he fights ruthlessly to earn it.” That is fine but where is the evidence that this was the case?
    If Solomon came to the conclusion that Mary Surratt was innocent, I wouldn’t trust his opinion on anything else to do with these issues. If the Union had not won the Civil War, the United States would not be the nation it is today, democracy would not be where it is now. As the New York Times reported in 1865, the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Pius IX, was certainly outspoken in his opposition to democracy during the Civil War (2). This bloody conflict was the sombre backdrop of nearly all of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and for the majority of his time in office, Secretary of War Stanton’s tremendous talent and energy was dedicated to efficiently fulfilling his duties as head of the all important War department. Lincoln wouldn’t have kept him there if he was not doing the job. You may be interested in knowing that after he joined the cabinet, Lincoln spent more time with his Secretary of War than with any other person, the President describing Stanton as the, “rock upon which are beating the waves of this conflict…I do not see how he survives–why he is not crushed and torn to pieces. Without him, I should be destroyed”. Being very interested in historical accuracy, I take great exception to the statements being made about this great patriot, Edwin Stanton, who did so much to help preserve the United States. If these things came from Solomon, I ask, where did he get them from? Where is the documentation that Stanton is indeed guilty of what he is charged with? It is easy to malign historical figures, because they cannot fight back, and much more difficult to know what one is talking about. I ask, where is the proof that Stanton had predetermined that Mary Surratt would be found guilty and so worked to see she was executed?
    It is very good to have this discussion and yes, I believe there are millions who are sick and tired of hearing of the latest bizarre actions of Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan and would rather hear of matter of substance. There are amazing true stories in American history that most know nothing about because they have never been exposed to them.
    Paul Serup
    (1) Chicago Tribune, Nov. 1, 1887, p. 9, (2) New York Times, Jan. 13, 1865, p. 5

  5. Mike Wilmington says:

    Obviously, there are disputes over the facts and who did what, in or out of the movies and historical drama, and I’m not going to keep up any debate about Mary Surratt, or Stanton, on this side. I’m also not happy with what strikes me as the generalized anti-Catholic tone of some of these arguments, or with the suggestion that Robert Redford may be indulging in religious propaganda. Anyway, interested readers can comb the Internet or the library.

    But if you have to go all the way to Hitler to justify capital punishment, you may recognize deep down that there are flaws in the argument. (I say that as someone who lost relatives in World War II and the Holocaust, and who was the son of a Jewish soldier in the U.S. Army.)

    The vast majority of the convicts executed in capital cases under our system were probably guilty. But what about the ones who were executed and who were innocent — as we know there must have been, given the number of verdicts overturned since the advent of DNA evidence? Should we just forget about those wrongful executions, and write the dead victims off as an unfortunate consequence of the many benefits (unclear to me) of capital punishment? War is one thing; a just and dispassionate legal system is another.

    I repeat: If you make a mistake in a capital case, and execute somebody who was innocent, you cannot correct that mistake. That’s one of the key arguments against capital punishment.

    Hitler was responsible for enough suffering, misery, death and destruction as it is. I would like to see him and his fellow Nazis roasting in Hell. But he shouldn’t be used to justify a procedure that can destroy innocent lives — and one that almost certainly has. Beyond, I think, reasonable doubt.

    By the way, your first letter suggests you haven’t seen “The Conspirator” yet — and I think you should, before engaging in any more discussion about it. You owe Redford and his fellow filmmakers that courtesy.

  6. Laurie Verge says:

    I am beginning to wonder if some reviewers of The Conspirator have even seen the movie. The plot line leaves it clear that Mary Surratt was very likely on at least the fringes of the original scheme to kidnap President Lincoln. She and the other conspirators were arrested, tried, and convicted through the laws of conspiracy – especially one based on an English common law principle called vicarious liability. When one enters into a conspiracy, one is liable for what any member of that conspiracy might do. I believe the general term we use today in an instance like this is “felony murder.”

    I have been the director of the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Maryland for twenty-eight years and a student of the Lincoln assassination for about fifty years. Modern historians and I agree that there was enough evidence to assume that Mrs. Surratt must have known of what was going on to some degree. The question is the extent of that knowledge. Did she know when the plot turned to murder? Only God, Mary, and Booth likely know that answer.

    I also worked with the researchers and producers for about two years and read the original script earlier than that. I sent back six pages of “suggestions,” and I am happy to report that many changes were made and that the history was followed as accurately as possible in order to keep it down to a two-hour presentation and to keep it enjoyable.

    It is a movie, not a documentary, and is designed to intrigue the viewer enough for that viewer to do a little reading on his/her own and form individual opinions. That is the purpose of history in general. Legal minds and purist historians will find fault, but personally I don’t care – they already know the history. I am more interested in the movie appealing to the 8th grader or the 60-year-old who slept through history class.

    If we have the power to pique someone’s interest in American history, more power to us. The good lord knows that it has been ignored in quite a few U.S. classrooms for decades now!

  7. Paul Serup says:

    It would be regrettable if you think my comments are anti-Catholic, Mr. Wilmington. I am not against Catholics. I wish and hope the very best for them, but I have great problems with the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has been responsible to tremendous wrongdoing historically, I believe the evidence shows, and it should not get a pass, regardless of its claims to being the one true church of God.
    For instance, slavery was one of the factors that set the stage for the Civil War. A Supreme Court judge played a vital role in placing it there by rendering the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857. Ruling for the majority, U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a devout Roman Catholic, decreed that blacks could not become U.S. citizens and that they “had no rights which the white man is bound to respect.“ He received no rebuke from his Church for this. Correct me if I am wrong. Why would this be? Orestes Brownson, considered by some to be Catholicism’s greatest American intellectual, stated during the Civil War “that no religious body in the country stands so generally committed to slavery and the rebellion, or as a body have shown so little sympathy with the effort of the government to save the unity and life of the nation, as the Catholics.”
    Along with the Civil War recognition of the Confederacy by the Pope, (attested to by the New York Times, as well as other sources), Charles Chiniquy alleged that New York Archbishop John Hughes and his agents were responsible for the horrific New York City Draft Riots in 1863, where huge bloodthirsty Irish, Catholic mobs threatened the existence of the city of New York and the whole nation. Commentary by dispassionate historians like Joel Headley, Edward Robb Ellis and Carl Sandburg, among others, show that the mobs were organized: they were Catholic, they destroyed property, they fought and killed police and military personnel, they beat innocent black people to death for the crime of being black, and the Archbishop could have stopped them but did not do so. Archbishop Hughes was never taken to task for this by his Church and I do not know of any apology that has ever been given to the black people of New York of this time. Is it wrong to point this out? Or should what was done to black people at this time, for example, be swept under the carpet, so as to not embarrass the Catholic Church and avoid being possibly “anti-Catholic”?
    You think capital punishment is very bad, I do not think it is, if care is taken to ensure that accused truly did what he or she is accused of doing. Ultimately, we will have to agree to disagree on that.
    Laurie Verge states that he was the director of the Surratt House Museum and says Mary Surratt was on the fringe of the kidnapping conspiracy, at least. He asks “did she know when the plot turned to murder? Only God, Mary, and Booth likely know that answer”. In his book, Blood on the Moon, Edward Steers pointed out that while imprisoned, George Atzerodt stated “Booth told me that Mrs. Surratt went to Surrattsville to get out the guns (two carbines) which had been taken to that place by Herold. Steers declared, “Atzerodt’s statement is devastating to claims of Mary’s innocence. Atzerodt could have only gotten such information from Booth himself sometime during their evening meeting in Lewis Powell’s room.” As I have stated, other serious historians have come to the same conclusions regarding Mary Surratt’s guilt.
    Should she have been executed? At this time, the penalty for conspiracy to kidnap evidently was death. As well, whether or not murder was involved, conspiring to overthrow the American government at a time of war was also a capital offense.
    The movie advertising makes the claim that it is a true story, or based on a true story, I recollect. I have not seen the movie and I would like to see it so, yes, I could comment on it first-hand. I would have gladly seen it when it first screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall but I couldn’t afford the time and the money to fly across the country, just to see the movie. I may not see it until it comes out on DVD because I don’t know even when or where it will air, even in the province I live in. That being said, if review after review says it questions whether Mary Surratt was guilty, one should be able to come to the conclusion that the movie does question her guilt. Otherwise, what is the use of reading reviews, or anyone writing them, for that matter?

  8. Gabriel Piedra says:

    Paul, I have been reading the excerpt of your book from:

    Your research about Chniquy and Lincoln papers is excellent. I know a lot of people who would like to read the book in Spanish. Is there a possibility to have it in Spanish? I can make an excellent work of translation into Spanish because I am from Costa Rica.

    Maybe you can email me to talk about it:

    My name is Gabriel Piedra.

    Thanks for your attention.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

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