The Conspirator (2010)

 

 

 

Director:     .

Starring:     James McAvoy (Frederick Aiken), Robin Wright (Mary Surratt), Kevin Kline (Edwin Stanton), Evan Rachel Wood (Anna Surratt), Tom Wilkinson (Reverdy Johnson), Justin Long (Nicholas Baker), Danny Huston (Joseph Holt), James Badge Dale (William Hamilton), Colm Meaney (David Hunter), Alexis Bledel (Sarah Weston), Johnny Simmons (John Surratt), Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth), Jonathan Groff (Louis Weichmann), Stephen Root (John Lloyd), John Cullum (Judge Wylie).

rush to condemn to death Mary Surratt, owner of boarding house where conspiracy to kill Lincoln was hashed out

 

 

 

Spoiler Warning:

On a battlefield in the American Civil War.  Captain Frederick Aiken of the Union Army is badly wounded.  Next to him is another man, his friend, who is gravely wounded.  The stretcher-bearers arrive and the Captain insists that they take the more badly wounded man first.  The stretcher bearers protest that the man is almost dead, but the Captain insists that his request is an order.  So they take the other man first. 

Two years later.  April 14, 1865.  There is a big celebration for the Union Victory in the war and lots of Union officers are there to celebrate.  Frederick Aiken is there, along with the now-recovered gravely wounded man on the battlefield.  Frederick wants to go over and meet Edwin Stanton, the Secretary for War.  As he goes across the room, he is stopped by a man who says he's been to Creation and back looking for Frederick.  Frederick stops and introduces Baker and Hamilton to the distinguished Maryland Senator, Mr.  Reverdy Johnson.  Johnson introduces Baker and Hamilton to two young ladies, so he can have a little talk with Frederick. 

Johnson introduces Stanton to Frederick.  Stanton says it's a shame that the Captain won't be able to meet the President, but it seems that Mrs. Lincoln prefers to go to the theater this evening.

A pretty young woman known as Sarah comes over to greet Baker and Hamilton.  Fred shows up and asks Sarah to take a walk with him. 

The actor John Wilkes Booth rides his horse to the back of Ford's Theater.  He asks the back doorman to hold his horse for him, for he will be back soon.  Then Booth goes inside the theater. 

Co-conspirator Louis Payne goes over to the home of Secretary of State William Seward.  His job is to kill the Secretary of State.

Co-conspirator George Atzerodt has the job of killing the Vice-President, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. 

Atzerodt loses his nerve and leaves.  Payne starts up the steps to get to Seward.  He pistol whips the guard by Seward's bedroom door into unconsciousness and then stabs another man in the Steward bedroom.  He now starts trying to stab Seward in the neck, but Seward has on a neck brace that offers him some protection from the knife blows.

Booth shoots the President in the back of the head, jumps down onto the stage from the Presidential box, shouts Sic semper tyrannus (thus always to tyrants) followed by "the South is avenged", flees across the stage and out the back door.  He gets on his horse and rides away.  

The President is taken into a house across the street where he is put in a bed.  Stanton goes in to see the President.  An officer tells Stanton that the shooter was the actor John Wilkes Booth.  He found this out from the actors on stage.  Another name, John Surratt, is brought up to Stanton.  Mrs. Lincoln is loudly sobbing.   Stanton tells the officers in the room:  "Take that woman out, and do not let her in again." 

Several of the assassins are rounded up and thrown in prison.  Mrs. Mary Surratt is one of those taken to prison from her boarding house because that was where the assassination scenario was plotted out.

The army tracks Booth down to a barn on a farm in Maryland.  Another man is with him.  The soldiers set the barn on fire.  The other man comes out with his hands up, but not Booth.  A soldier shoots Booth in the back.  He dies.

The nation mourns the death of President Lincoln. 

Fred goes in to see Senator Johnson of Maryland.  The senator explains to Fred that he has taken one of the cases of the conspirators and he wants Fred to be his second chair.  Fred is confused.  He says he thought that it was going to be a  military tribunal.  It is, says Johnson.  Stanton has chosen nine of his most loyal officers to be the judges.  And he has picked one of Lincoln's pallbearers to head the Commission.  And the man in overall charge of the trial is Stanton's most trusted judge advocate general, Joseph Holt.  They will be defending Mrs. Mary Surratt.  Fred doesn't like the idea at all.  He comments that the woman's son was Booth's right hand man.  In fact, he says, Mary Surratt built the nest that hatched the plot.

Senator Johnson says trying civilians in a military trial is an atrocity.  There's no presumption of innocence, no burden of proof, no jury of  one's peers and no  appeal.  In short, Mrs. Surratt is in need of a defense and he will defend her.

The Senator and Fred go to the military prison where the trials are to take place.  The charges against Mary E. Surratt are that " . . . in aid of the existing armed rebellion against the United States, you are charged with having received, entertained, harbored, concealed, aided and assisted John Wilkes Booth, John A. Surratt and their confederates David E. Herold, Lewis Payne, George A. Atzerodt, Michael O'Laughlen, Edmund Spangler, Samuel A. Mudd and Samuel Arnold in traitorous and murderous conspiracy to kill then-President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and
Secretary of State William Seward."  Mary says:  "I am innocent."

Judge Advocate Holt will now proceed.  Senator Johnson stands to ask for a delay.  His client was in prison for a month, but was only allowed to see her counsel yesterday.  Holt says: "General Hunter, a delay will only serve to prolong the nation's sorrow."  The General sides with Holt.  The Senator really gets the audience riled up in his defense of the right of a civilian to have a civilian trial and not a military tribunal and have sufficient time for the defense to prepare an adequate case for their client. 

When the trial finishes for the day, Senator Johnson tells Fred frankly about their client: "She doesn't stand a chance with an old Southerner like me defending her.  She needs a Yankee captain like you."  Fred says he just can't do it.  He says he won't do it because he won't betray his country nor his friends who died defending it. 

At dinner in a restaurant, Fred tells Sarah that Senator Johnson wants him to represent Mary Surratt.  Sarah is scandalized by the idea.  And so are Fred's friends. 

Fred goes to see Mary.  He passes a large prison cell that contains all thestage actors from that infamous day at Ford's Theater.  Mary is upset with Fred being her lawyer because he is only 27 years old and has never defended a defendant in court.  She sees this as another ploy on the part of the military to make sure she never gets a proper defense.  Fred starts asking her questions. She explains that she and her daughter moved to Washington about a year ago after her husband passed.  Mary says her husband was deeply in debt and she had to support her family.  So she rented rooms to boarders.  Those men were customers and nothing more.  She admits that she is a Southerner, but says I am no assassin.

Fred tells Mary that with a military tribunal, they can do to her whatever they want.  She cannot even testify on her own behalf.  Mary asks:  "Well, then what difference does it make?  Those generals have made up their minds."  She can tell by the way they look at her:  "Just the same way you're looking at me."  Fred turns to go.  Mary asks him to look in on her daughter for she hasn't seen her in a long time.  Fred will do it. 

Fred gets by the guard at the door and goes in to see Anna Surratt.  Anna is not happy, especially since she says she is a prisoner in her own house.  Fred goes up to take a look at Anna's brother's room.  He doesn't find much.  He asks Anna if she has her mother's ledger so he can see who lived in the boarding house.  She brings the ledger out of its hiding place.  Someone throws a brick through one of the house windows. 

Fred goes to the prison again for the trial.  He notices there are lots of vendors outside the prison selling Lincoln memorabilia and fresh roasted peanuts.  He sees Baker and Hamilton there and Sarah too.  He goes over to her and asks why is she here?   She says:  "I'm trying to understand why you're here."

The prosecution's first witness is Louis Weichmann.  He was like a son to Mary Surratt.  He testifies to the long meetings held with Booth that lasted two or three hours at a time.  Fred tries to suggest that Louis was on better terms with the conspirators than he is saying, but the judges will not allow it. 

Fred tells Senator Johnson that he thinks Mrs. Surratt is guilty.  The Senator tells him that if he can prove that Mrs. Surratt is guilty, then Fred can be released from the case.  Fred thanks the Senator.

Fred goes to speak with Mary.  He tells her that Booth never stayed at her boarding house.  He says that her son was a courier for the rebs bring information back and forth between Washington and Richmond.  Booth needed her son because he knew all the best routes in and out of Washington.  She says that her son was in Canada on the day Lincoln was assassinated.  Her son never conspired to kill the President.  The only thing he was guilty of was conspiring to kidnap Lincoln. 

The kidnapping was ready to be sprung, but the President changed his plans at the last minute.  Booth had to ride out and tell the gang that Lincoln was not coming.  Mary knew that they were trying to kidnap the President.  But on the day of the failure, Johnny Surratt packed his bags and left Washington to go elsewhere. She did not report the gang because one of the gang members was her son.  He left two weeks before the actual assassination. 

Stanton comes to Senator Johnson to say that the young man is pushing too hard for his client.  Senator Johnson stands up for Fred and reiterates the the military tribunal is a travesty.  Stanton warns that Fred could become persona non grata in the North. 

Mary continues her hunger strike. 

Fred talks with Holt about treating his client better.  He says if this continues, Mary Surratt will not be fit to stand trial. 

When Fred comes to visit, he finds Mary Surratt sitting by a wall in the open courtyard.  She is enjoying the sun shining on her face. 

Fred's good friends keep warning him that if he loses the case, he loses, but if he wins the case, he also loses because Fred will be seen as a traitor to his country. 

Back at the trial, a Mr. Lloyd testifies that on the afternoon of the day the President was assassinated, Mary Surratt in company with Louis Weichmann paid him a visit at his tavern 10 miles outside of Washington.  She delivered a package to him from John Wilkes Booth.  In the packages was a pair of binoculars.  Fred tries to put the blame on Johnny Surratt and not on Mary.  This approach brings condemnation down on Fred from the judges and Mr. Holt, as well as from Mary Surratt.  

Fred gets in more trouble when he declares that he can get no witnesses to testify for his client, because Holt threatens the witnesses with possible jail time.  General Hunter warns that if Fred doesn't calm down and comport himself in a different manner, he will be charged with contempt of court and land up in jail with the defendants themselves. 

And now Fred gets kicked out of The Century Club for conduct unbecoming of a member of the club.  Sarah gets upset and decides to go home by herself.  She tells him that he has been ignoring "us".   She finds his devotion to this case frightening.  Secretary Stanton arrives and Fred goes over to confront him on the military tribunal.  Again, he is too heated to be discussing this matter.  He tells Stanton that Stanton really doesn't even want Marry Surratt, but rather Johnny Surratt.  Stanton says, because someone must pay for the assassination of the nation's President, for the sake of national unity, he is happy to take either one of them.  Now Fred turns around to go talk with Sarah a while more, but finds that she has already gone off in a carriage.

Fred has some drinks and then he goes to see Anna Surratt.  He wants her to testify on behalf of her mother.  Fred wants her to tell them that her brother is not innocent, but Anna says she won't to that.  Fred says it's her mother who needs saving now, and not her brother. 

Anna gets on the stand and implicates her brother in the conspiracy with Booth.  She says her mother did not conspire neither with her son or Booth.  Her mother is innocent. 

When Fred returns to his place at night, Anna is there.  She tells him that when her brother saw her with a photo card of Booth, he told her:  "Tear that up and throw it away.  That man is gonna get us all in trouble, if not worse."  She didn't throw it away because she was infatuated with Booth. 

Fred presents his argument that there is really such a flimsy case against Mary Surratt that it proves the government wants her punished for the crimes of her son, Johnny Surratt, and not for any crimes committed by the mother.  If a person can be convicted on such flimsy non-evidence, then all must be afraid that this kind of injustice may strike us one day. 

The military jury does not want Mary Surratt to hang.  They have been merciful.  But Secretary Stanton refuses to accept this verdict.  She has to die too, because that's what the people demand.  Stanton decides to change the minds of the judges and apply the death penalty to the woman. 

A group of soldiers come into Mary's cell and one soldier reads the verdict to her.  She is found guilty and will be hanged by the neck until she is dead.  Mary is shocked.  Anna cries for her mother.  Senator Johnson leaves for Baltimore. 

Fred starts writing a letter to Judge Wylie asking for habeas corpus and a new civilian trial. 

Fred presents a writ signed by Judge Wylie to Stanton.  They will have to get Mary to the judge's court by noon. 

Fred tells Mary and Anna the goods news.  They are happy and grateful.  But as Fred looks out at the prison gallows, he sees four ropes there and not three.   And now they come for Mary saying that it's time.  President Johnson has suspended the writ.  They take Mary out and Anna screams and cries for her mother. 

The four condemned prisoners are taken to the gallows:  David E. Harold, G. A. Atzerodt, Lewis Payne and Mary E. Surratt. The boots of the condemned are removed, their hands tied behind their backs, and the nooses are placed around their necks.  Their heads are covered with white sacks. The boards fall beneath their feet and they are hanged.

16 months later.  Johnny Surratt is in prison.  He asked that Fred visit him.  When Fred visits him in his cell, Johnny thanks him for all he did for his mother.  He tells Fred that he never thought they would kill his mother. 

"A year after Mary Surratt's trial, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled citizens were entitled to a trial by jury, even in times of war.   A jury of Northerners and Southerners could not agree upon a verdict in the case of John Surratt.  He was set free."

"After leaving the law, Frederick Aiken became the first City Editor of the newly formed Washington Post."

 

I already knew the story, but was still entranced by the full telling of it.  Good movie.  Probably Mary Surratt in a civilian trial would have not been hanged.  Perhaps she would even had been set free, like her son was when he had a civilian trial.  But when the nation is really devastated or very afraid, all kinds of injustices can happen and have happened in the good ol' USA.  It was interesting seeing the murder of Lincoln from Mrs. Surratt's perspective.  I had no problem following the train of events, helped by my familiarity with the details of Lincoln's assassination.  Actors James McAvoy (as Frederick Aiken), Robin Wright (as Mary Surratt) and Kevin Kline (Edwin Stanton) were all good.  It was interesting seeing Kevin Kline acting to serious throughout the whole movie. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

 

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