Time for another look at some of the strange aspects of my past. When I was a freshman in high school, I was introduced to the world of Civil War reenacting. Being the history nerd that I was (and am), I was immediately hooked. Most of the money from early jobs went to supporting my new, rather expensive hobby. While my sister saved to buy her first car, I purchased uniforms and other ephemera to complete my “character,” for lack of a better word, in the 97th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company A. For the next ten years, I went to every event I could make it to, and, for the most part, enjoyed myself. Over time, though, I grew bored and stop taking it seriously. One aspect I found tiresome was the way my fellow reenactors would talk about the conflict we were simulating. It was like a bunch of old guys trying to justify their existence to one another. Oh, you think Robert E. Lee should have handled the battle of Gettysburg differently? Tell me more about how you have no life outside of this hobby. My apologies for the sarcasm, but as much as I love history, I like to cultivate other interests as well. Regardless, along the way I learned just about as much as a person would ever care to learn about the “War Between the States.” This is the background I bring to a movie such as The Conspirator (2010).
The Conspirator begins with the end of the Civil War. Captain Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) lies wounded next to his friend and fellow officer, Nicholas Baker (Justin Long). They survive their experience, but the war ends as they are convalescing in Washington, D.C. As they sit in their club, the Century Club, along with another of their fellow veteran officers William Hamilton (James Badge Dale), a commotion breaks out in the streets. This is in regards to a collection of snippets you see of shifty figures stalking victims. The main one is John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) entering the private box of President Abraham Lincoln (Gerald Bestrom) at Ford’s Theater and putting a bullet in the head of our nation’s leader. The Century Club is not far from the theater, and Aiken and his friend merge with the crowd gathering outside to see the president moved to the house where he will die a few hours later. Enter then Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline). He springs into action, declares martial law, makes sure of the whereabouts of the vice president, and initiates a ruthless manhunt that leads to Booth being cornered and killed before he could stand trial for his crimes. However, as the title of the movie might suggest, Booth is part of a conspiracy that attempted to bring down the entire American government, thereby giving the Confederacy new life to carry on fighting. Booth was the only successful assassin, and all the others were caught alive. Stanton, though, does not stop with those wielding pistols and knives. He has Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) arrested as well, the owner of the boarding house where the cabal met to plan their attacks. Initially, the lawyer assigned for her defense is Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) of Maryland. Because he is technically a Southerner, he turns to his assistant, the newly retired from the army Aiken, to lead her defense. Aiken has no desire to do so given the fact that he had just fought a war against this kind of Southern treachery, and because everyone believes her guilty. Since he wishes to advance his career in politics, he grudgingly continues with the assignment. As he gets into the case, though, he finds a number of problems. The first and most glaring one is that Mary, a civilian, is being tried by a military tribunal, which is supposed to be unconstitutional. It becomes apparent that Stanton’s sole purpose is to make an example of Mary, and does not care if he has to break the law to do so. This brings up the next issue, and that is how clearly they do not wish to give Aiken’s client a fair trial. He sees only disaster with the case, and as his friends point out, if he loses it will look bad for his record, and if he wins he will have helped a traitor go free. In attempting to get Senator Johnson to release him from this duty, the Congressman tells him that in order to do so, he must prove Mary’s guilt. This proves an impossible task for Aiken. Between the mounting evidence that Mary simply was the owner of an establishment where a terrible act was planned, and the obvious witness tampering by the government’s prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), Aiken becomes convinced of Mary’s innocence. It also fuels his drive, leading to him being kicked out of the Century Club and his girlfriend, Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel), leaving him. His efforts also do not end with Mary being found innocent. In desperation, he turns to Judge Andrew Wylie (John Cullum) to sign off on a writ of habeas corpus to get the case retried in a civilian court, as it always should have been done. Unfortunately, Stanton gets the new president (who is Andrew Johnson, by the way, though he does not appear in the film) to suspend the writ. Aiken finds this out on the day that Mary is to be executed, and he is on hand for the public hanging. The final scene features Aiken visiting John Surratt (Johnny Simmons), Mary’s son, after he is finally captured. Had he come forward sooner, he might have prevented Mary’s execution.
I would not blame you if you are unfamiliar with either The Conspirator or the events it portrays. While I want everyone to be familiar with history, it is enough for the time being that John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Now, I know I said a bunch of stuff in the introduction about my expertise on the Civil War. While watching the movie, all of it checked out according to my own knowledge of these incidents. Yet, I wanted to see how the film was received by historians other than myself. I am pleased to report that it was praised, so much so that it got a screening at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) in 2011. Briefly, this is a conference where all the most well-known academic historians meet to congratulate themselves on having the discipline all neatly tied up for themselves. Getting on a panel there, and/or the subsequent interviews and cocktail parties afterwards, can make or break a career. If you detect any sarcasm in my prose, you can make of that what you will. At any rate, I mention their approval in order to underscore the film’s importance. It deals with some tricky history that should serve as a warning against certain political actions today.
One fact that The Conspirator brought to light for me is the fact that Mary Surratt was Catholic. Additionally, her son had briefly studied to be a priest. I also appreciated how they depicted Mary going to her execution with a Rosary in her hand, with Father Walter (David Andrews) accompanying her the whole way. One unfortunate aspect, though, is how they portrayed the Catholic Church in the United States as giving shelter to John while he was on the lam. Apparently, John did receive some assistance from the Church, but that was in Canada. The film, though, makes it appear as if Catholicism itself was a co-conspirator. One thing it also does not bring up, which I think is more of a missed opportunity than the one mentioned by my fellow historians in 2011, is the distrust of Catholics in the nineteenth century. If I were to ask you what the second highest selling novel was in the United States mid-century, would you be able to guess The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed? It proved a sensationalized piece of fiction, though supposedly based on Monk’s real-life experience. Its lurid tales priests raping nuns confirmed for an American public already suspicious of Catholicism what the Faith was truly like. This atmosphere of anti-Catholicism is suspiciously missing from the film.
I do not know if I have given the most ringing endorsement of The Conspirator. If history is not your jam, then you will probably be bored to tears. If you can get past your prejudices, though, you have a really solid movie with great performances about a topic that should be understood in a modern context. The Catholic in me wishes they had taken some of the story a little further, but I am okay with it as it stands. See it.