Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Conspirator


On July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) and three others were hanged for the crime of conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and Vice President Andrew Johnson. She owned the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and other conspirators, including her son John, hatched their plot, of that there is no doubt. Whether she knew of the plot, and the degree of her participation, if any, is debatable. A good case can be made for either side, and I don’t really care. If guilty, she should have been given a fair trial, and then hanged. What is beyond debate—affirmed by the Supreme Court later in an 8 to 1 vote—is that she did not get a fair trial. She and the other defendants were railroaded by a hand-picked panel of generals. It was a lynching, prettified by the trappings of a trial. This film shows the politics behind the verdict, and concentrates on the defense mounted by Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), reluctantly at first, because he believes she is guilty and he was a Union soldier. But he grows increasingly passionate as he sees the travesty the so-called trial has become. It’s a case of standing up for the constitution, the law, the rights of the accused, all things that tend to get trampled in wartime hysteria. Sound familiar? It should. The defendants were kept in cells with bags over their heads. Can you say Abu Ghraib? The kangaroo court was a “military tribunal,” with no right to try a civilian. Just a few weeks ago an American citizen—a stinking pile of dogshit, it is true, but a citizen nonetheless—was executed without trial, by either the American military or possibly by civilian contractors, I’m not too clear on that. Either way, it was a violation of the constitution. But who cares? We gotta get the bad guys, right? We don’ need no steenkin’ trial! This was directed by Robert Redford, and it’s better than his last one, the didactic and boring Lions For Lambs, but it’s more of a history lesson than a movie.