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Movie Review: The Conspirator

The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford, is the kind of movie that is probably destined to do better over time than at the box office. Less than two minutes at the beginning of the film contain anything close to the usual wide-screen fair of exploding objects or dismembered bodies. Instead, it deals with the less sensational, though more devastating, effects of what has been called at various times, The Civil War, The War Between the States, and most fitting to this story, The Lost Cause.

With both North and South reeling from a war neither expected to last for five years and cost over 600,000 lives, there was one last battle to be fought. This one was carried out by the infamous John Wilkes Booth and six other conspirators who intended to kill the President, Vice-President, and the Secretary of State. As every school child knows, the plan was successful in the case of Abraham Lincoln, but the story behind the story has generally been relegated to history wonks.

Unlike many Hollywood historical films, The Conspirator gets the seminal parts of this story right. Mary Surratt, a Maryland Southern sympathizer, owned a boarding house in which among others, John Wilkes Booth and John Surratt, Jr. (Mary’s son) met to plan their last blow for the South. Booth was killed days after his escape, and all of his cohorts, save John Jr., were captured and brought to trial. But this is the story of Mary and the 28-year-old Union war hero, Frederick Aiken, who was called upon to defend her. As the whole nation vilified her, Mary Surratt had no choice but to rely on her reluctant lawyer to uncover the truth and save her life.

Mary Surratt vehemently denied any knowledge of the assassination but also refused to distance herself from the South she loved. Her character in the movie boldly proclaims, “I am a Southerner, a Catholic, a devoted mother, but no assassin.” But that isn’t all she had going against her. During the war Abraham Lincoln pushed for and realized the suspension of habeas corpus, which, among other things, guaranteed a U.S. citizen the right to be tried in court when being held by the government. While the War was over, the fear and hatred of war was not. As a result Mary Surratt was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death by a military tribunal and not by a jury of her peers.

Her attorney, at first doubtful of her innocence, quickly became certain that the way she was being tried went against the Constitution. What motivated Aiken as much as Surratt’s character was the obvious unfairness of her trial before a military tribunal rather than a civilian court. With Surratt barred from testifying in her own defense and the government making up the rules as it went, Aiken begged the tribunal to see that “abandoning the Constitution is not the answer…. In our grief let us not betray our better judgment and take part in an Inquisition.”

Though the guilty verdict was practically a foregone conclusion, giving the death penalty to a woman tried solely on the testimony of witnesses of less-than-good character was not. Though some events are condensed for the sake of story telling, The Conspirator gets the gist of things right.

Some Added Historical Perspective

Central to the plot of this movie is a Latin term that the average person knows little of. “Habeas corpus” refers to one the most basic rights guaranteed to individuals in America. In brief, a writ of habeas corpus is a judicial mandate that requires a prisoner be brought before the court to determine whether the government has the right to continue detaining them. An individual being held or their legal representative can petition the court for such a writ.

Article One of the Constitution clearly states that the right to a writ of habeas corpus can only be suspended “in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety.” The issue in the case of Mary Surratt was as to what act of rebellion she was a part of. When seen against the backdrop of our current war on terror and what to do with American citizens engaged in anti-government activities, this is hardly a matter of little consequence.

There is little historical evidence that Mary Surratt was directly engaged in a plot to overthrow the government. There is also a great deal of evidence the powers that be had predetermined her guilt and fate. Five of nine Supreme Court Justices signed a letter asking President Andrew Johnson to commute Surratt’s sentence to life in prison, but the Judge Advocate General delayed officially relaying that decision until two days before she was to be hanged. Even when the order for clemency was received, Johnson failed to sign it. It was later reported that Johnson saw Mary Surratt as the one who “kept the nest that hatched the egg”.

I highly recommend The Conspirator both for its cinematic excellence and the food for thought it engenders. Kudos to Robert Redford for avoiding the Oliver Stone approach to butchering history to make a buck. The story is presented in a fair and even-handed way, leaving viewers to decide what lessons should be learned.

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