by Jeffrey S. Williams

I find it quite uncanny to be sitting alone in a dark theater at midnight watching the first viewing of a film about the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln on the very night that he was assassinated. Yes, you read that correctly. I was alone and had the theater to myself. There was nobody else. The night was Thursday April 14, 2011, exactly 146 years after the president was shot by John Wilkes Booth.

The Conspirator Movie Poster

Shortly after ten o’clock on the night of April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was fatally shot at Ford’s Theatre while watching the play Our American Cousin. He was taken across the street to William Petersen’s boardinghouse where he died at 7:22 a.m. the next morning. An attempt was made on the life of Secretary of State William H. Seward at the same time. It was later revealed that Vice President Andrew Johnson and General Ulysses Grant were also candidates for assassination. After a trial by a military commission, conspirators George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell, David Herold and Mary Surratt were hanged on July 7, 1865. Of course you knew that. It’s in the history books.

The film The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford and produced by the American Film Company, is about the trial and hanging of Mary Surratt as viewed through the eyes of her attorney, Frederick Aiken. It opens with the assassination attempts and ends with the hanging, just like the story in the history books.

It’s the stuff between those scenes that concerns me.

First, the positives. The Civil War reenactors used did an above average job, compared to some other films like Gettysburg, God’s and Generals, Glory and Cold Mountain where the services of reenactors were utilized, but sometimes are mis-directed. Because this is not a film about a specific battle, reenactors were used as extras and performed wonderfully.

The cinematography was excellent. Even though the actual trial took place in Washington, D.C. in a courtroom constructed on the third floor of the Washington Arsenal, the film was shot at Savannah, Georgia. The reconstructed Arsenal gives you the feeling of actually being there. The courtroom layout was accurate, based upon the descriptions of those who were there and the sketches in Harper’s Weekly.

The casting was excellent. Robin Wright gave a stellar performance as Mary Surratt. Kevin Kline surprised me. It wasn’t until they flashed the credits that I realized that he portrayed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. It was a fabulous performance. Evan Rachel Wood (Anna Surratt) and Johnny Simmons (John H. Surratt Jr.) gave great performances which made me feel as if I was actually watching the events unfold inside the Surratt boardinghouse. The casting of the remaining conspirators and major characters was well done – except Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth). Kebbell did the best he could, so this is not a criticism of him. It’s in his looks. The other actors each had a strong likeness to their respective character. Kebbell seemed to be mis-placed. I give Avy Kaufman high marks for her abilities as a casting director.

Now for my criticism.

It wasn’t accurate. Even with the Dr. James McPherson as a historical consultant, there were so many inaccuracies that I could drive a Mack Truck through the holes in this film giving it the appearance of Robert Redford’s attempt at revisionist history. He tries hard to assert the innocence of Mrs. Surratt and make Secretary of War Stanton to be the bad guy. He ignores a lot of historical detail, including the fact that Surratt rarely uncovered her face. When her daughter, Anna, took the stand, a key moment in the film, it has been recorded by numerous sources at that time that Surratt sobbed while holding a white handkerchief to her veiled face.

Right after her arrest, Surratt was thrown into the same cell at the Arsenal that she remained in for the duration, according to the film. Historically, she was brought to the Old Capitol Prison for thirteen days before getting moved to the Arsenal. Furthermore, her feet were not bound by iron manacles, as the film suggests on a few occasions.

Lastly, regarding the legality of the trial, which is where Redford spends the most of his effort, it was a point repeatedly brought up by Senator Reverdy Johnson, her lead attorney. This is historically accurate, but there were more witnesses and questioning from other defense attorney’s which would have given us a more accurate picture of the trial.

The most accurate point of the film was the hanging. The gallows looked real and felt real. Other than mounds of dirt near the coffins looking a little “too clean” (again, looking for historical accuracy here), it felt like I was watching the hanging of the conspirators.

Overall, I give this movie five of ten dollars signs ($$$$$) because of the great job in casting and cinematography. It gives you a feel that you are in an  1865 trial. Unfortunately, as somebody who has studied the Civil War for nearly two decades, I find that there are too many historical inaccuracies to overlook.

Should you see this movie? It depends. If you are looking for accuracy, no. If you are looking for what it might have looked like, yes. If you are looking just for pure entertainment, it will probably bore you.

If you are looking for a list of the inaccuracies in this film, click here.

I would recommend reading Michael W. Kauffman’s American Brutus AND Kate Clifford Larson’s Assassin’s Accomplice before watching this film.