As an immigrant who never studied US history formally as part of a curriculum, my knowledge of it has large holes. So although I knew that Abraham Lincoln was killed by John Wilkes Booth in a theater in 1865 at the beginning of his second term of office during the waning days of the Civil War, I was not aware of the precise motive or that the murder was part of a larger conspiracy that sought to also kill the vice-president and the Secretary of State.
Hence the 2010 film The Conspirator directed by Robert Redford that focuses on the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) who ran a boarding house where the conspirators met, contained much new information for me and was quite educational. The key issue focused on in the film was whether Surratt was part of the plot or was being punished as revenge because her son, who was one of the conspirators, had escaped capture. The film is well produced and directed and engrossing, with strong performances from the key players (Wright in particular), and I can recommend it.
The director and screenwriters strongly emphasize the parallels with the modern day. In the wake of Lincoln’s murder and ostensibly in order to placate the population that was angry about it and demanded vengeance, the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) was determined to quickly execute those whom he had already decided were guilty, and thus set up military tribunals with officers as judges that eliminated most of the constitutional protections that ensure a fair trial, such as a trial by jury. His goal was to create a kangaroo court with a quick trial, guilty verdicts, and executions in order to ‘save the state’, and he was willing to subvert the constitution to make sure he got those results.
The film is largely a courtroom drama, something that I am highly partial to. Much of the film consists of the efforts by a young lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) and a Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to not only defend Surratt but to also point out the fundamental wrongness of what was being done to her and the rule of law by bypassing normal judicial processes. In one scene, Johnson directly accuses Stanton of deliberately whipping up all manner of unfounded fears in the population in order to get them to acquiesce in his extraordinary subversion of the constitution.
At the end of the film we are told that one year after this trial was over, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that people were entitled to a trial by jury even in times of war. That stance has clearly been abandoned now, even though the country is not even at war except for the bogus ‘war on terror’.
One disadvantage of watching historical films is that one often knows how it turns out. This eliminates some of the tension and in addition can cause irritation if one knows that the facts portrayed are not quite right. In this case, my ignorance of the eventual Surratt verdict helped me enjoy the film more. I cannot of course judge the historical accuracy of the film. One reviewer for the History News Network gives the film high marks for historical accuracy in its details but noted that the entire film manages to never mention slavery at all, instead referring vaguely to the ’cause’ for which each side fought in the Civil War. This may have been due to the filmmakers not wanting to alienate any viewers in the South, some of whom continue to deny that slavery was the issue that prompted secession, or the fear that drawing attention to the fact that Surratt was likely a supporter of slavery would make her less sympathetic as a defendant fighting a vengeful prosecution. Whatever the reason, the reviewer questions whether a film about Lincoln and the war that never mentions that major underlying issue can be considered true in a larger sense.
In a prelude to the film we are informed that it is the debut production of a new outfit called The American Film Company that claims to seek to depict historical events accurately. Future films plan to deal with John Brown and Paul Revere. However, in exploring their website, I discovered that the founder and CEO of this company is billionaire Joe Ricketts who has all manner of political involvements and achieved dubious fame recently because of, among other things, his recent aborted effort to launch a campaign linking president Obama closely with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
The fact that this group’s financial backer is so closely associated with a propaganda effort does not necessarily mean that this film or the American Film Company is merely a propaganda mouthpiece for his views. Modern propaganda would not be as effective as it is if it were that obvious. But it does mean that this outfit bears close watching. It could be that the first few films are left in the hands of historical experts and film professionals in order to create credibility by producing quality products, and that this credibility is later exploited to serve a more blatant ideological purpose.