Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” is ostensibly about the Abraham Lincoln assassination trial. But many critics, including critical Washington Post reviewers, have discerned it’s actually about America’s supposedly unconstitutional overreaction to 9-11. Focusing on convicted assassination conspirator Mary Surratt, the first woman the U.S. Government ever hanged, the film portrays her as the mostly innocent victim of an over zealous War Secretary.
Actor Kevin Klein, ostensibly portraying the movie’s villain, War Secretary Edwin Stanton, but is excellent at actually playing a bearded version of a hyper-decisive Donald Rumsfeld. In Redford’s version of history, a Rumsfeldesque Stanton strong-arms a military tribunal, naturally headed by an actor who portrayed a corrupt, rapist judge on Law and Order, into wrongly convicting and executing Mrs. Surratt. At the start, the film shows a birds eye view of Civil War-era Washington, with the U.S. Capitol oddly next to and parallel to the White House. Anyone who has visited or even flown over the nation’s capital will be perplexed. But the cartoonish distortion metaphorically illustrates Redford’s larger mischaracterization of important American history to justify his political case against post-9-11 America.
Most historians, including Surratt’s latest biographer, agree that she was guilty of conspiracy. But Redford’s agenda requires transforming her into a semi-heroine who stoically endures martyrdom. And just as the Left often de-emphasizes the horror of 9-11 so as to emphasize their real concern, i.e. warrantless taps, renditions, Guantanamo, enhanced interrogations, and Abu Ghraib, so Redford deemphasizes the crime of Lincoln’s assassination so as to spotlight Mrs. Surratt’s plight.
Perhaps the context of John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln could have been better set with a brief few extra scenes in the movie. One would have showed Booth anxiously listening to Lincoln’s famous speech by candle light from a White House window after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, when the President suggested voting rights for some southern blacks. Booth reportedly responded: “That means n–ger citizenship. Now by God I’ll put him through!” Previously involved in Confederate espionage and plots to kidnap Lincoln, Booth suddenly shifted into an assassination plot. Lincoln was murdered directly because of his exertions on behalf of oppressed black Americans. Another scene might have shown the hundreds of blacks who gathered in the rain outside the White House after Lincoln’s death, weeping and mourning, realizing their greatest champion had fallen on their behalf.
But black people, except as occasional servants, are strangely mostly absent, even in street scenes, from Redford’s portrayal of wartime Washington, even though the nation’s capital always had a large black population, which further surged during the Civil War. Perhaps portraying the stakes for American blacks in Lincoln’s survival or death would have distracted from Redford’s purpose of whitewashing Mrs. Surratt.
Demonizing Edwin Stanton, who is actually a stand-in for Rumsfeld, is also central to Redford’s project. A supremely confident and competent public servant who waged the Civil War to a successful conclusion, Stanton was a close confidant to Lincoln, even sometimes residing near Lincoln’s Summer cottage outside the city. He vigorously supported abolishing slavery. And though a former Democrat who had served in President James Buchanan’s notorious administration, Stanton genuinely supported Lincoln and mourned his death. There is no reason to doubt that Lincoln would have disapproved of Stanton’s insistence on a military trial for the assassination conspirators, as Lincoln himself had famously suspended habeas corpus for Confederate sympathizers and perpetrated other war-time policies that Redford doubtlessly would dislike. Unlike the cold, Rumsfeldesque character whom Kevin Klein effectively enacts, Stanton was passionate, grumpy, sometimes shouting mad and, at least once, was caught weeping by himself in his War Department office, overcome by the horror of his war responsibilities. A younger Gene Hackman might have better caught his volcanic personality, if portraying Stanton rather than Rumsfeld was the goal.
According to Redford, Stanton should have submitted the alleged conspirators to a civilian trial. That’s an easy Hollywood perspective. From Stanton’s perspective, the nation was emerging from a Civil War in which over 600,000 had just died, the equivalent of about 6 million Americans today. The nation’s capital was surrounded by secessionist Virginia and semi-secessionist Maryland and full of Confederate sympathizers. Lincoln was the first U.S. president ever assassinated. The conspiracy also succeeded in slashing Secretary of State Henry Seward nearly to death on the same night. Another conspirator was supposed to have murdered Vice President Andrew Johnson. Probably there originally were plans to kill General Ulysses S. Grant and Stanton himself. It then was not unreasonable to assume the Confederate government had master minded a plot to decapitate the U.S. Government. Even though Lee had surrendered only days before, other Confederate armies were still under arms, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, with most of his cabinet, was still at large. Under these circumstances, would a routine civilian trial have been appropriate? If German agents had murdered FDR and tried kill other senior U.S. officials during the final days of World War II, would the conspirators have faced a military or civilian trial? FDR had famously ordered a military trial and quick executions for the German saboteurs who blundered into New York, not even having yet committed their intended sabotage. Unlike Hollywood producers, American leaders, in 1865 or 1945 or 2001, have had to address the facts at hand.
Was Mrs. Surratt a mostly innocent victim of Stanton’s vengeance? And did Stanton subvert justice to ensure her execution? Redford shows the War Secretary manipulating the military tribunal to appease an American public enraged and fearful over the war and the assassination, similar to George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld’s supposed behavior after 9-11. But 4 of the conspirators at the trial escaped the death sentence, so it’s unclear why Stanton would have targeted Surratt. Executing a woman was hardly popular in Victorian America, where women, especially mothers, were still presumed incapable of violent crimes and too fragile to merit hanging. Even 27 years after Lincoln, a Massachusetts jury refused to convict an almost certainly guilty Lizzie Borden, who had axed to death both her father and step-mother. And convicting the conspirators in a civilian trial in 1865 Washington, D.C., which was still full of Confederate supporters, might have been difficult. Mrs. Surratt’s son, whose association with Booth and guilt are beyond dispute, was freed by a hung jury several years later.
Booth and most of the assassination conspirators were not infrequent visitors to Mrs. Surratt’s war-time boarding house, where, in President Andrew Johnson’s words, she “kept the nest that hatched the egg” of assassination. On the day of the assassination, Booth hired a carriage for her and dispatched her to her country tavern to deliver some binoculars, which he would retrieve that night after the assassination. She reputedly asked U.S. soldiers on the edge of Washington, D.C. when their sentry duty was over and was very interested in their answer. She was apprehensive throughout the day, seemed to anticipate some ominous event, and asked her boarder Louis Weichmann, a fellow Catholic, to pray for her “intentions” without elaborating. According to her country tavern manager, she specifically instructed that he have guns ready that evening for a visitor, which was Booth. Redford portrays Weichmann and the tavern manager as depraved tools of Stanton/Rumsfeld. But Weichmann the rest of his life maintained his testimony. And the tavern manager’s claim was validated by another convicted conspirator, who recalled Booth saying he had asked Mrs. Surratt to vouchsafe with the tavern keeper that the guns were ready.
Mrs. Surratt was arrested several days after the assassination, when Seward’s attempted assassin showed up late at night at her door seeking refuge, while investigators were present. She claimed not to recognize him, though he had over-nighted at her house only weeks before. Other boarders and neighbors testified to Surratt’s extensive contacts with the conspirators, including Booth. Surratt never told investigators about her ominous errand on Booth’s behalf, nor was she surprised when investigators came to her door on the night of the assassination. Weichmann recalled her noting after the assassination that “John Wilkes Booth was only an instrument in the hands of the Almighty to punish this proud and licentious people.” Surratt’s daughter reputedly likened Lincoln’s murder to no more than the “shooting of any poor n–gger in the army.” Mrs. Surratt was not a simpleton. She was a shrewd, middle-aged businesswoman who successfully navigated the turbulence of war-time Washington, even as a Confederate sympathizer and likely spy, frequently entertaining other spies. Upon her death sentence, another convicted conspirator gallantly tried to exonerate her. But a third conspirator, also sentenced to death, denounced her as guilty. Her legal defense, which summoned over 30 witnesses, did not successfully dispute the facts against her, instead relying on character witnesses, including clergy, who affirmed her character as a mother and Catholic.
Redford portrays a devout Mrs. Surratt enduring her hanging almost stoically. Actually, she more humanly and understandably emoted on the scaffold. Some of the judges who convicted her appealed for a presidential commutation to a life sentence, citing not the facts of the case but her gender. But President Johnson refused. She was almost certainly complicit in one of America’s most wretched crimes that helped fuel decades of further suffering for both white and black southerners. General Lee, in his first public interview days after his surrender, condemned Lincoln’s assassination, knowing the atrocity would only poison eventual reconciliation. Booth and his hateful conspirators lacked that moral foresight.
Mrs. Surratt’s attorney, portrayed heroically in Redford’s movie, apparently later left the law in disgust and worked for the new Washington Post, which Redford gushingly announces in his final scene. So perhaps there is a symbolic connection between the injustice of the Lincoln assassination trial and Watergate, which Redford, portraying Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, helped to expose in another movie, All the President’s Men.
Redford’s The Conspirator, like most historical movies, fails as reliable history. But its implicit effort to malign America’s post-9-11 War Against Terror while also whitewashing one of Lincoln’s likely killers makes this film more troublesome than most historical fiction.