While attending the American Historical Association (AHA) Annual meeting in Boston, we were given the opportunity to see the film, The Conspirator distributed by The American Film Company whose goal is to produce historically accurate movies. That in itself is a godsend for historians, who often have trouble watching period pieces because they get disgusted with all the inaccuracies. That said, here's the story.
This movie covers the period of Abraham Lincoln's assassination and the events and trials that came as a result of all that. In particular the movie focuses on the trial of Mary Surratt, mother of one of the conspirators of Lincoln's assassination. Her son escapes and because the government can't locate her son, they prosecute and persecute her.
Going into this movie, I was aware that Mary was executed for plotting to kill Lincoln. What I didn't know, however, were all the details of the trial, of the witnesses who lied, of evidence that was not allowed to be admitted, of the government's own role in railroading this woman because she either could not or would not give up the location of her son. I also didn't know about her lawyer.
James McAvoy plays Mary's lawyer in this film. Robin Wright plays Mary. The lawyer was a Union Civil War hero. He did not want to defend Mary. He believed she was guilty, yet by the end, he is so incensed at the corruption of the government to see her hang, going against everything the U.S. Constitution stands for and everything he fought for, that he defends her ferociously to the end, with a lot of shocking surprises. I was riveted by the story and all the details and court transcripts that I wasn't previously aware of. I could also relate to the lawyer's disenchantment with the legal system that could do so little to protect this woman.
The cast of this movie reads like a who's who in film. Robert Redford directed the movie and here are the people who were in it: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Justin Long, Alexis Bledel, Tom Wilkinson, Danny Huston, James Badge Dale, among many other character actors that you will recognize. What was interesting to me was that despite so many well known faces, most of them blended in and were very believable in character. There were a couple that were hard to believe, Justin Long for one. I don't believe it had anything to do with his acting, only that I was so used to seeing him as "the clown" that when he was put in this serious role, I kept waiting for a punch line. Robin Wright always does an excellent suffering woman, for me, the best acting came from James McAvoy as Mary's lawyer, Danny Huston as the prosecutor, Kevin Kline as the "prick" Secretary of State and Tom Wilkison as a Senator and senior law partner who assigns McAvoy's character to the job. What M believed was missing in the film was a little more background on the Civil War. Everyone knows enough about the facts to know what happened, but what isn't shown in the film was the depths of the hatred between the North and South, and the level of paranoia, to make the government's persecution of Mary Surratt more understandable. This film is scheduled for release this Spring. I don't know if it will get a wide release, but it was definitely a good film. I would go see it again and it's definitely a Netflix pick if you go that route.
Here are some trailer clips from the film: