I got a special invite this week. The hubby got free tix to a private screening of the The Conspirator by one of the Producers for the movie. The narrative is spun around the story of “Mary Surratt [who] is the lone female charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination trial of Abraham Lincoln. As the whole nation turns against her, she is forced to rely on her reluctant lawyer to uncover the truth and save her life.” (from IMDB)
Prior to the opening credits the Producer came out and introduced himself to the audience, thanking us for attending the local premiere. He stated that as part of the production company that he worked with he was excited to share this movie as their mission is to “make American movies, true to American history” to which he received whoops and cheers from the afore quiet community of movie-goers. As I looked around the theater I noticed a diverse (if not ethnic, then certainly age-wise) audience. Most of the young people seemed to be from the local university’s art program, revealed in their quiet chit-chats about classes and professors. And in stark contrast, much of the mature audience members seemed to be lawyers or somehow related to the legal community. Now the reason that I mention the Producer’s words is that they kept ringing in my ears as I watched the story unfold. Interestingly, there were no historians in the audience.
Here a brief synopsis of the movie, “In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of State. The lone woman charged, Mary Surratt, 42, owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks. Against the ominous back-drop of post-Civil War Washington, newly-minted lawyer, Frederick Aiken, a 28-year-old Union war-hero, reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal. As the trial unfolds, Aiken realizes his client may be innocent and that she is being used as bait and hostage in order to capture the only conspirator to have escaped a massive manhunt, her own son.”
This is a fairly accurate recap of the movie, if you leave out all the allusions to the Foxnews style post-9/11 analysis and the shocking toilet flushing scene (apparently there were flush toilets in the Civil War period?!).
But what got in my craw and still bugs me is that the movie is supposedly about Mary Surratt and it really is not at all about her life. The movie relies heavily on the characterization of Edwin Stanton as a Karl Rovish leader, willing to defend Lincoln’s democracy at any cost – even ignoring the law of the United States Constitution. Stanton’s nemesis is Reverdy Johnson who is a constitutional idealist and sees the post-Civil War period as a point of great hopefulness for democracy. In the end it is Frederick Aiken the civil war hero and new lawyer for Mary Surratt who bears most of the social burden for defending Surratt despite his own misgivings about her innocence.
I realize that Robert Redford is not known for his strong feminist leanings but when I go to see a movie with a strong female lead, I’d really like to actually see that woman get to do just that -lead the film. Robin Wright is an amazing actress with an amazing stage presence. It would have been a powerful story to see Wright share Surratt’s world perspective for at least some part of the movie.
Yet, in the end I did kind of like the drama and as I’m a huge fan of the docu-drama film genre, this flick was a good jaunt to the movies.