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'The Conspirator's' little secret

The film about the prosecution of John Wilkes Booth collaborator Mary Surratt has been accused of being ripped from today's headlines. Only it has been in the works since 1993.

April 14, 2011|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

After an attack of confidence-shaking violence by political terrorists, a leading U.S. legal figure pushes for a civilian trial instead of a military tribunal for a suspect in the attack. But he is overridden by a political tide arguing against a public trial and in favor of national security.

It sounds a lot like Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.'s attempt to prosecute accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a New York federal court. In fact, it's a movie about an event that took place well more than a century ago: "The Conspirator," Robert Redford's account of the trial of accused John Wilkes Booth collaborator Mary Surratt.

Despite the parallels to the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the little secret of the Lincoln assassination film, which opens Friday, is that it took root many years before the attacks of Sept. 11.

"Many people have been making the Guantanamo comparisons, which is really odd to me," said screenwriter James Solomon, referring to the reaction after "The Conspirator" screened for preview audiences and critics around the country. "It was 1993 when I started this. George W. Bush wasn't even the governor of Texas yet. Then again, the real-world circumstances provide a great understanding of the context. People can now bring their own awareness of the chaos, the fear, the anxiety that was plaguing the country at that time."

Nearly any high school student can recite the basics of the Lincoln assassination. Just days after Robert E. Lee surrenders to Union forces, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth shoots the president in Ford's Theatre. Booth is killed 11 days later in a standoff with Union troops.

But the reality is more complex. Booth was part of a larger group of conspirators that, intent on rallying the Confederate army, also plotted to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. The far-reaching plot led to the Johnson administration rounding up dozens of people connected to Booth.

In a turn that particularly evokes Guantanamo, eight of the conspirators were tried by a military tribunal over the protests of Edward Bates, who served as attorney general for four years under Lincoln. (New Atty. Gen. James Speed and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) argued that a civil trial could reignite the Civil War, a point that has echoes of the anti-Holder argument about empowering terrorists.)

"Someone handed us a platter," Redford, in an interview about his movie, said of the release's timing.

A courtroom drama with a surprisingly emotional core, "The Conspirator" focuses on the trial of Surratt (Robin Wright), who owns the boarding house where Booth and his cohorts plotted, and specifically on the chess match between her reluctant attorney, a young lawyer and Union veteran named Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), and Stanton, who is hell-bent on prosecuting the woman. Surratt's plight is complicated by a loyalty to her AWOL son, one of the Booth cohorts, whom the government is keen to find but whom she continues to protect against her own interests. The film's script is marked by crisp courtroom exchanges often taken from the real transcripts. (Thursday marks the 146th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination.)

Although "The Conspirator" clearly gives the impression that the Surratt trial was rushed and unfair, Solomon and Redford say they wanted to stay above politics — and, certainly, above the Mohammed question.

"There is often a rationale for moving expeditiously, but in the heat of the moment, we're capable of making errors in judgment," said the first-time screenwriter. "But I didn't want to comment on present-day circumstances. Researching this movie gave me a greater appreciation of the balance between the law and security."

Redford says he is aware that some might be tempted to dismiss the film because of his liberal politics. "I imagine no matter what I do it's going to be pushed over by some people," said the director whose last film, "Lions for Lambs," was criticized for left-wing preachiness.

But skeptics may want to hold their judgment. Despite its director's bona fides, "The Conspirator" doesn't fit neatly in a box. It tilts in the direction of civil liberties but it also makes out some Union figures, thought by many modern-day liberals as champions of civil rights, as hawks more concerned with national security.

Solomon didn't start out as a history buff. Leaving behind a stint as a foreign correspondent for UPI, he came to Hollywood more than 20 years ago to study directing, eventually assisting Barry Levinson on his Baltimore-based family saga "Avalon." Shortly after, he came across the story of Surratt. He couldn't believe anyone hadn't made a movie about it.

"Most screenwriters look far and wide for a good story, and this was sitting under all of our noses," said Solomon, who now lives in New York.

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