Though it grabbed national headlines in its day, the story of the lone
woman charged with conspiracy in the assassination of President Lincoln
has seldom been covered in history classes.
Unfortunately, this quiet, deliberately paced film
sometimes feels more stilted and educational than compelling.
There's a stiffness that keeps the story from packing a punch.
Surratt ran the Washington boardinghouse where the plot to kill Lincoln
was believed to have been devised. Her son John. . . was allegedly one
of the co-conspirators. . . .[A]fter Lincoln's death, John Surratt
disappeared. Officials put Mary on trial in some part because
John could not be found.
|Mark LaSalle, San Francisco
. . . "The Conspirator," director
Robert Redford persuades us, if not to grieve, to understand other
people's grief and to look at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln with
fresh eyes. He invites us to see it not as some immovable historical
event, but as people of the time saw it, as an absolute outrage and an
how few people know this: Lincoln's assassination was just one act in a
plan to decapitate the government. The same night Lincoln was murdered,
Secretary of State William Seward was stabbed and almost killed, and
Vice President Andrew Johnson was the target of an abortive attempt.
Specifically, it's the story of
Mary Surratt, a middle-aged Washington, D.C., widow who owned the
boardinghouse where the plot was hatched. Surratt - a Southern
sympathizer whose son was almost certainly part of the conspiracy - was
arrested and stood trial, and for almost 150 years, controversy has
surrounded her name. Was she innocent? Was she a rabid conspirator? Or
was she something in between?
senator (Tom Wilkinson) takes up her defense and is heckled and
ridiculed by the military tribunal. He resigns in favor of his young
colleague, the Union war hero Frederick Aiken . . .
take a stand on Surratt's guilt or innocence, which, given the
evidence, might actually make sense.
To the extent
the film has passion, it revolves around a cerebral, though crucial,
concept: In a time of crisis, we must never be frightened into
curtailing constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
Conspirator" is respectful of the historical record down to the small
details: When the mortally wounded Lincoln is carried across the street
and placed in bed, he is laid diagonally . . .The trial scenes are
enraging - the tribunal is a collection of implacable thugs. . . .
Whether it's something in the color palette or in the saturation of the
color or in the setting of the scenes, when Redford shows an exterior,
you can almost smell the air and believe that you're seeing 1865.