Conspirator, The (2010): Interview with Director Redford about his Political Drama

THE CONSPIRATOR, directed by Robert Redford from an original screenplay by James D. Solomon, stars James McAvoy, Robin Wright Alexis Bledel, James Badge Dale, Jonathan Groff, Danny Huston, Toby Kebbell, Kevin Kline, Justin Long, Colm Meaney, Stephen Root, Tom Wilkinson and Evan Rachel Wood.

In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of State.

The lone woman charged, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), 42, owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks.

Against the ominous backdrop of post-Civil War Washington, newly-minted lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a 28-year-old Union war-hero, reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal. As the trial unfolds, Aiken realizes his client may be innocent and that she is being used as bait and hostage in order to capture the only conspirator to have escaped a massive manhunt, her own son.In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State.

The lone woman charged, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), 42, owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell), 26, and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks.

Against the ominous back-drop of post-Civil War Washington, newly-minted lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a 28-year-old Union war-hero, reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal. Aiken realizes his client may be innocent and that she is being used as bait and hostage in order to capture the only conspirator to have escaped a massive manhunt, her own son, John (Johnny Simmons). As the nation turns against her, Surratt is forced to rely on Aiken to uncover the truth and save her life.

A riveting thriller, The Conspirator aims to tell a powerful and true story about America then and now.

The Conspirator explores the national reaction to Lincoln’s assassination in the aftermath of what was, at the time, the most shocking murder in U.S. History. Director Robert Redford, states, “The film deals with the harsh efforts to keep the political polarization of the time from worsening. The country was deeply divided, not just North and South, but also between those in government who wanted to place post-war punishments and restrictions on the defeated South that would cause suffering and resentment among the Confederates and those, like Lincoln, who wanted a more moderate, conciliatory reconstruction.”

Producer Brian Falk says he and The American Film Company were intrigued by Booth’s misguided efforts “to decapitate the federal government. This is one of those stories that everybody thinks they know, but it really is a story that nobody knows. Everybody understands that Abraham Lincoln was killed by an actor named John Wilkes Booth. What they don’t know is that it’s part of this much larger, more complex conspiracy.”

The Conspirator tells the story of Mary Surratt who was the only woman charged in the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln. The conspirators, including Mary’s son, John, met at her boardinghouse and some of them roomed there. Had they discussed the assassination during those meetings? Did Mary know? Did she conspire with them?

Even today, we don’t know. The scriptwriter, James Solomon, is sure the prosecution thought she was guilty. “There’s no question in my mind that Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, and Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General thought she was guilty and there’s no question in my mind that her defense lawyer, Frederick Aiken, thought she was innocent. Perhaps the truth is somewhere between both points of view and I think that’s sort of where I would like it to be, because the ambiguity is the most truthful.”

Director Redford elaborates, “The Conspirator concerns more than one conspiracy. There was the assassination, but there was also a conspiracy of political expediency.” Stanton, as Secretary of War and one of Lincoln’s closest advisors, was a powerful force in government. While the others in the administration were stunned and in mourning, and with Secretary of State Seward gravely injured, Stanton took control of investigating the crime and prosecuting the conspirators.

Redford observes, “Everyone knew the recent surrender ending the war represented a tenuous peace, at best. The assassination was a direct threat to that peace.  Stanton quickly dealt with this threat by devising an immediate, final and cathartic solution. He took shortcuts to do that and was able to persuade legal and military leaders to support his efforts.”

Stanton’s efforts took the form of a quick military tribunal and immediate execution.  His intent was to publicly avenge Lincoln’s death, make the Union more secure, and move the nation beyond this tragic event.