Both films I have watched which were produced by Robert Redford explore how humans respond to adverse conditions. In an Unfinished Life, Redford plays an angry, bitter old man who quit living the day his son died.
In the 2010 film, Conspirator, though, Redford only works from behind the camera. But, his hand is still felt as the character of Mary Surratt and her attorney, Frederick Aiken, develop over the course of the 2-hour film.
Setting the Stage
The film moves quickly through the assassination of president Abraham Lincoln, the attempted assassination of vice president Andrew Johnson — and the aborted attack on Secretary of State William Seward. Once the crime scene is established, Redford wraps up the background story by, again, quickly moving the story along. First with the death of James Wilkes Booth and then with the arrest of his associates, which include the owner of a Washington D.C. boarding house Booth frequented — Mary Surratt.
The crux of the story then unfolds around Surratt and Aiken, a former Union soldier assigned the case — and who believes Surratt is guilty of conspiracy. However, the attorney attempts to push aside his reservations and truly represent her in court. As the court drama unfolds, Aiken realizes that the military tribunal is a sham — and that Surratt is going to be found guilty regardless of any evidence he presents.
Surratt’s Southern Roots
Also complicating Aiken’s task is his client. Surratt makes no bones about her allegiance to the South, but she adamantly denies any involvement in a conspiracy to kill Lincoln. As the story unfolds, it appears Surratt is telling the truth and that her true motive for being evasive is her motherly desire to protect her son, John, the man the court actually wants to try and execute.
Surratt is found guilty and sentenced to die by hanging along with three other men arrested on conspiracy charges. But her attorney, now her champion because of the way the court railroading her through the process, is able to secure a change of venue and the right for Surratt to be tried by a jury of her peers in a civilian court.
But in a final twist of cruelty, after Aiken gives Surratt the good news, guards walk into her cell and advise her she is to be hanged. President Andrew Johnson had overturned the request for a new trial.
As the credits roll, viewers are handed one more final twist.
They learn that John Surratt is captured and tried 18 months later. He is found not guilty of conspiracy and released.
Rated 4 out of 5
The only downside to the film, is it presumes viewers know about the conspirators tried and convicted after Lincoln’s death. For those unfamiliar with the details of the assassination plot — and the role various men played in it — they will walk away from the film with very little understanding of how the plot was orchestrated.
Although many historians accept the guilt of most of the conspirators, many are uncertain of Mary Surratt’s guilt. You can learn more about the life of Mary Surratt by visiting the Surratt House Museum website.
Surratt’s attorney, Aiken quit law shortly after the trial, became a city editor for the Washington Post, but died at a relatively young age in 1878. He was buried in an unmarked grave. In 2012 the Surratt Society of Maryland erected a modern headstone on Aiken’s grave.