THE CONSPIRATOR: A Film Review from a Researcher’s Point of View

April 11, 2011: Barry Cauchon

Robert Redford’s film “The Conspirator” hits theaters this Friday, April 15. The producers of the film (American Film Co.) were kind enough to allow me to visit the set for a couple of days in November 2009. I later had a chance to view the film at the World Premiere showing at the Toronto Film Festival. I posted a review of the film on September 18, 2010 on this blog and later published it in the spring edition of the Lincoln Herald. I am posting that review again here today.

I encourage you to see the film. For those of you who believe it is the story of Mary Surratt, the lone woman indicted with seven other defendants for their involvement in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, it is only partially that. This is the story of one of Mrs. Surratt’s lawyers, Frederick Aiken and his battle with the very one-sided military commission that tried her. Whether Mary Surratt was guilty or innocent is not resolved here and the debate goes on between researchers and historians as to the level of her involvement in the crime. In the end, Mary Surratt was found guilty and received the sentence of death which was carried out by hanging on July 7, 1865.

Best

Barry

September 18, 2010: Barry Cauchon

Last week on September 11, I attended the world premiere of Robert Redford’s The Conspirator at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film tells the little-known story of the unjust military trial of Mary Surratt, one of eight people put on trial for conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln and other members of his cabinet.

Attending the gala was director Robert Redford, writer Jim Solomon and actors Robin Wright (Mary Surratt), James McAvoy (Frederick Aiken), Kevin Kline (Edwin Stanton), Justin Long (Nicholas Baker, Aiken’s life-long friend), Alexis Bledel (Sarah Weston, Aiken’s fiancee) and James Badge Dale (William Hamilton, another friend of Aiken).

I am not a movie critic so I won’t be writing this article with that as my motive. For this story, I am wearing two hats; one as a researcher who knows the subject matter and the other is to share my personal impressions of the film!

Rather than reviewing all the specifics of the film, I will direct you to any one of the 80+ online reviews of the film. Here is what one reporter wrote (Kirk Honeycutt: The Hollywood Reporter)

“So the film, seeking a distributor here, is very much a tough sell. It’s an admirable film, mixing history few people know with several real-life personalities well worth knowing. Unfortunately, viewers for such fare are older and less prone to line up on a first weekend. A distributor will need to roll this film out incrementally, looking for feature stories, reviews and word-of-mouth to entice history buffs and the curious into adult venues”.

Kirk Honeycutt makes a couple of factual mistakes in his report but the gist is fairly accurate. Here is the link to his story. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/film-reviews/conspirator-film-review-1004114044.story?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+thr/reviews/allreviews+(The+Hollywood+Reporter+-+All+Reviews)

According to Kurt Graver of The American Film Company, Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions has signed on as the distributor for the film and will release it sometime in the spring of 2011. http://www.theamericanfilmcompany.com/about/news/.

Generally speaking, the portrayal is factual, but there are parts that take bold stances where history may not fully support them, so I can imagine that some great debates will result. Here are three that will make you either clap or cringe!

— In her first scene, Mary Surratt is incarcerated in chains, forced to wear a 75-pound ball and chain on her ankles and a pair of Lilly Irons on her wrists. CRINGE…BUT VERY LIKELY. Senior officers and her own legal council (Clampitt) stated that Mary Surratt was never chained, restrained or manacled (except during her execution). However, numerous reports from newspapers and eyewitnesses in the very early days of her trial all state seeing Mrs. Surratt wearing ankle chains and/or Lilly Irons on her wrists. Interesting!

— Some factions of the Roman Catholic Church, sympathetic to the Confederate cause, have a communication pipeline between Mary Surratt and her son, John, who is in hiding in Quebec, Canada. Mary’s own priest, Father Walter, is part of that conduit. CRINGE…BUT PLAUSIBLE! The country was split with allegiances during the Civil War and the Roman Catholic Church certainly had parishioners from both Union and Confederate families. What proof is available about this scenario is not known to me, but I find the idea very intriguing. (Interesting Fact: During the spring/summer of 1865, while escaping to Montreal, Quebec, John Surratt was taken in and hidden by Father Charles Boucher and than later by Father LaPierre, both Roman Catholic priests).

— After the military commission finds all eight conspirators guilty, the commission privately votes to give death sentences to Lewis Payne, David Herold and George Atzerodt. When it’s time to vote on the punishment for Mary Surratt, the vote for death is taken and a non-majority of only 3 or 4 hands out of nine are raised, resulting in a life sentence. (Note: a two-thirds majority or 6 out of 9 votes were needed for execution). Judge Holt reports the results to Edwin Stanton who states “Well, I guess we’ll just have to change their minds”. CRINGE, BUT AGAIN INTERESTING THEORY! There are no known reports on how the commission voted behind closed doors. Originally, Mary’s sentence was death. But five of the voting commission members wrote a letter to President Johnson asking for her sentence to be commuted to life. The film may misrepresent the facts a little bit but allows for this very interesting position to be tabled about whether Stanton had influence on the commission’s findings or not.

THE FILM OVERALL

The opening fifteen minutes of the film are quite engaging and successfully set the stage with just enough detail to bring the uneducated viewer up to speed quickly. Frederick Aiken as the wounded war hero and lawyer, the assassination of Lincoln, Edwin Stanton’s power and control, the other acts of conspiracy against Seward and VP Johnson, Booth’s capture/death and the rounding up of the conspirators and their imprisonment.

At this point, my hopes are pretty high considering how well this complex part of the story has been simplified and told. The feel and mood are also dead on.

The next hour and a half moves into the courtroom and trial scenes. I’m sure it is very difficult to create a film and display high emotion when the majority of it is in a darkened and sullen courtroom, listening to exchanges and eyewitness accounts. So was the case here. Being that I was familiar with the subject matter, there were many details that I personally found interesting. For someone new to this story, the information may be a lot to take in and understand.

During the trial sequence, there are intermittent flashbacks and scenes shot outside of the courtroom. This helps to break up the trial and add details where needed. Still, some attendees at the premiere commented that the trial made the movie feel ‘flat, drawn out and stagnant on an emotional level’. Very few highs or lows in emotion are expressed during the trial other than the occasional heated exchange. It did seem to drag several times and become repetitive when the issue was made about the military commission being biased and focusing solely on getting guilty verdicts. “Okay, we got it after the first couple of times this point was made”. But the film repeats the action several more times to ensure it is not missed.

Two witnesses are used (Louis Weichmann and John Lloyd) and they do a good job in burying Mary’s chances of getting out of her situation.

Despite Mary’s objections, Aiken tries to make the trial about John Surratt so that he can shift the blame away from his client. From start to finish, Aiken does not accept Mary’s innocence (which was an interesting way to approach it). But he begins to fight for her when he sees how biased the commission is and railroading her and the others to a quick guilty verdict. With the law and constitution blatantly being ignored by the commission, he takes up her fight if only to prove that the law can’t be manipulated as the commission sees fit.

After almost 1-1/2 hours of courtroom drama, the commission adjourns.

The most exciting part of the movie could have been the last 10-15 minutes. The vote on Mary’s sentence is taken; Aiken races to get the Writ of Habeas Corpus, success and then failure when it is overturned, and the final march to the gallows. All this is covered in the last few minutes but it is rushed and appears as if the film makers ran out of time. What a shame because this really could have brought life back to the film after the slower-paced courtroom scenes.

The kicker for me is the scene where Aiken has just gotten the writ on the morning of the execution and is now in Mary’s cell with Father Walter and Anna. Aiken is telling them that the writ will get her a new trial and that she is safe for now. Aiken glances out the window and notices that the scaffold still has four nooses, not three. At that moment, General Hartranft walks into the cell and informs Mary that she must come along with him to prepare for her execution. Aiken argues that he’s just obtained the writ from Judge Wylie but is then told by Hartranft that it has been suspended by the President so Mary must hang! It is the perfect moment for some serious drama (strong music, volatile conversation, some genuine emotion). There is so little of it that the ending is almost anti-climactic. Within the next three minutes of film, Mary is marched to the gallows and hanged. I was left with the feeling of “What happened”! She’s given the bum’s rush out the door, led down row of Federal soldiers, up onto the gallows and executed. A lot more could have been done to save this part of the film and make it a more attractive film to general movie goers. As I said earlier, I’m not a movie critic and have come at this from someone educated in the subject matter. So I am probably showing my own bias here. In any case, in my opinion, more could have been done with the film’s finale.

THE PERFORMANCES

A lot has been mentioned about the choice to hire Robin Wright to play Mary Surratt. I personally think she did a great job on the character. Wright portrays Mary as a devoted, unwavering mother, stoically facing her impending fate. She is assisted in interpreting the character by a great make up department, who gives Wright that familiar worn look and feel of Mary. Her youthful beauty is transformed into the comely, mother figure we have grown to know from the few photographs available.

James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, Mary Surratt’s reluctant lawyer. McAvoy plays the character of a strong war hero who truly believes Mary Surratt is guilty of the charges against her (and never really moves from that position). However, as the military commission manipulates the court proceedings to make the trial as one-sided as possible for the prosecution, he begins to fight the injustice of it and, in doing so, almost helps to save her life in the end. Although I am not a Frederick Aiken researcher, the historical character presented seems very plausible on many levels.

Kevin Kline plays Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Although the character of Stanton is presented as a fear monger and one-man despot, Kline does a great job with him. Researchers will either cringed at, or give praise to, some of the things Stanton does in this movie (depending on how you view him in history).

But for me, the actor who really steals the show has to be Tom Wilkinson as Reverdy Johnson. He is outstanding, playing Mary Surratt’s first lawyer who, after getting into a heated debate with the military commission over the constitutional legitimacy of the trial, removes himself in place of the younger, inexperienced Aiken. Mr. Wilkinson shows his talents in this film and gratefully appears throughout from start to finish.

AND SPEAKING OF PERFORMANCES…

Last November, John Elliott and I were invited down to the set of The Conspirator while filming in Savannah, GA. I attended the execution sequences and John attended the trial filming. Both of us played extras as Union soldiers. I am happy to say that John made it to the big screen and can easily be seen escorting Jonathan Groff (who plays Louis Weichmann) to the stand for the first time. Congrats John on your movie debut.

Jonathan Groff (Louis Weichmann) with John Elliott       Norman Reedus (Lewis Powell) with Barry Cauchon

 [Left photo: Jonathan Groff (Louis Weichmann) and John Elliott. Right photo: Norman Reedus (Lewis Powell) and Barry Cauchon. Nov-Dec, 2009]

For me, I am buried somewhere in the background during the hanging sequence. If I am there (and not on the cutting room floor) it will take a microscopic forensic examination of the film to find myself. But hey, that is what I do! LOL. I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame years ago when I was an extra in a film called “Murder at 1600”. I made it onto the big screen as a uniformed secret service agent. Ah, those were the days! Congratulations to you John. (By the way, I can see myself in the photo used at the beginning of this article….time to play Where’s Waldo).

Finally, I think if you have a working knowledge of this story you will get much more out of the film than if you are new to the subject. In any case, the film is sure to get people wondering about the ‘real story’ of the aftermath of the assassination and that is always a great thing for us in the research community. We love sharing our knowledge with you.

So after saying all this, what did I think of the film? I liked it a lot. Don’t let my disappointment in the ending sway you. As always, I want to see MORE rather than less. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the film when you get your chance to see it.

Best

Barry

outreach@awesometalks.com

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great review! I can’t wait to see this film.

    As for Mary being manacled, I guess we’ll just have to do a BIG cringe. On Sept 17, 1873, Frederick A Aiken sent a letter to the Washington Chronicle: “I have your letter of this date, inclosing the letter of Jane G. Swisshelm, published in the Tribune (N. Y.), the 16th instant, and asking me, ‘ Is her statement true that Mrs. Surratt was manacled during her trial?’ Without reference to any other fact or to any of the details of the case of that most unfortunate lady, I have to say in reply that at no time during her unlawful trial was Mrs. Surratt manacled, either on her wrists or her ankles, while in the presence of the Court. I not only speak from my own absolute knowledge, but from recollection of Mrs. Surratt’s oft-repeated statements to me that she was not manacled. Very truly yours, Frederick A Aiken.”

    It seems a pity to me, considering his involvement in the facts and the fiction of this case from start to finish, that this appears to be one of the few references we find of his public comments about the trial. Frederick was a newspaperman, who understood the power of words to influence ideas, people, and government policies; and who made his living before, during, and after the war with these words.

    That so many of his thoughts are lost to history (or at least hidden in plain sight as articles he may have written without a byline) is frustrating to me as a researcher trying to get my finger on who this man really was. Was he the Union hero of the film? Or a Confederate sympathizer dressed in Union clothing? Or both?

  2. I just finished teaching the Civil War to 5-8th graders and read the book Chasing Lincoln’s Killer to the class. I will try to find a way to take my entire class to see this film…I love using movies to teach history! I think they will embrace it!thanks for the history tidbits…

    • Hi Bonnie: Thanks so much for writing. I absolutely love hearing from students and teachers. The toughest critics on historically based films are the historians themselves. We in the research community are often asked for advice from film and documentary makers. With regards to The Conspirator, I was asked for advice from the film’s writer, Jim Solomon, on several aspects of the Arsenal Penitentiary and the subsequent conspirator executions. Next week, my writing partner and I speak at the Surratt Society & Surratt House Museum 2011 Conference, Lincoln Assassination: New Perspectives to present our research from our upcoming book “Inside the Walls: The Final Days of the Lincoln Conspirators”.

      The folks at the Surratt Society are good friends of mine. They also were heavily involved in advising for the film and reading the scripts. But it is always up to the producers and directors on what makes the final cut. Often the ‘real history’ takes a back seat to the story being told. It is a fine line. In most cases in the past, the Surratt folks have come away being very disappointed in the films and documentaries that they were asked to advise on. However, regarding The Conspirator, they have been pleasantly surprised and like the direction that the film took. Was Mrs. Surratt guilty of the crime that she hanged for or was she railroaded by a very one-sided military tribunal? The film leaves her guilt open for debate and focuses much more on the military trial proceedings and her lawyer Frederick Aiken (she actually had three). Aiken believes she is guilty and never moves off that position but can’t abide by the unfairness of the trial that she, and the seven other defendants, had to endure. It is a good story and well told. Details have been changed to make the story flow better but in all, you and your students will get a lot out of it.

      If you like, after you have seen the film, I am more than happy to talk to you and your class and fill them in on the real history of the event. If you are in my area, I can sometimes arrange for a live visit. If not, there is always Skype or other means of communication. I think it is important to follow up a fictional story with the real history.

      Please let me know what school and location you are living in. I would love to chat more and see if I can be of any assistance to you.
      Thanks so much for writing. I really do love hearing from teachers and their students.
      Best
      Barry

  3. I don’t see films that often but will go see this as I am an amateur historian and CW reenactor. I know historical films are as much about the time it was made as they are about the historical event itself. Do you think this film is as much a commentary on the military trials at Gitmo as it is about the assassination?

    • Hi Roy. I think you’ll enjoy the film especially since you already have a background in understanding Civil War military procedures and history. Your question regarding similarities with Gitmo is often discussed amongst the historians, researchers and authors I know. However, the producers at American Film Company were intent on presenting history as honestly as possible in their film. So although I believe they are aware of the similarities, I don’t think that they included anything in the film that relates. That does not mean that the viewing public will not make the connection however.
      The forward to our book has been written by Judge Frank Williams who sat on the Military Commission on Gitmo. I’ve never talked to him about the similarities between that commission and the conspirators’ commission, but I know he has written on the subject as he is a respected Lincoln scholar. I’d search for his articles online to find out more about his point of view on it. But to directly answer your question, I don’t believe that the film makes any statement related to Gitmo. The events are strikingly similar and viewers will certainly, like yourself, make their own conclusions about both situations. Thanks for writing. Best. Barry

  4. Barry-Great review!!! I saw the movie and I thought it made people”think”.The audience was “frozen”at the end of the movie.I did some of the research on Aiken and informed the American Film Co.of my findings.I found 2 letters from Aiken to Jefferson Davis-1 early in the war and 1 after the war,offering his services.I also found a letter from Aiken to McCllean telling him to hurry up and run against Lincoln.Those letters were never mentioned in the movie.So,my question is,What was Aiken really about?

  5. You’ve written an excellent review of the Conspirator. I’m one of those who tends to view Mrs. Surratt as being guilty. I believe Weichmann knew a lot more, too. In any case, it’s terrific the story still resonates with so many, to the point of several new films the last couple of years.

  6. […] THE CONSPIRATOR: A Film Review from a Researcher’s Point of View (awesometalks.wordpress.com) […]


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