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The military court that tried a conspirator

Robert Redford in Chicago

Who was the first person brought to trial and faced with the death penalty for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln? Most people can be forgiven for thinking it was John Wilkes Booth. They would be mistaken. It was a woman named Mary Surratt, whose connection with the plot against Lincoln remains a matter of debate.

Robert Redford had read a lot about Lincoln and he knew that Booth, in fact, was never tried at all, but was shot by a Union soldier 12 days after he fled from Ford's Theater. But he hadn't heard about Mary Surratt, the subject of his new film "The Conspirator." She was the mother of John Surratt, who met with Booth and others in the Washington boarding house she owned. Did she know what they were planning? Was she a co-conspirator?

That's the question at the center of this historical drama, which contrasts her Constitutional rights with the desire of Northerners to see someone--almost anyone--found guilty for the crime.

Robin Wright plays Mary Surratt, and Kevin Kline plays Lincoln's power-hungry Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who pushed for a quick trial. The story is seen through the eyes of her young attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who was a Union soldier, wants nothing to do with the trial, and is ordered to defend her by the Solicitor General.

"I didn't know anything about this until I got the script," Redford told me on the afternoon of the movie's Chicago première.  "That's what was intriguing. I thought, oh, this is about Lincoln and that's a road well-traveled. But It was the story of Mary Surratt and I thought, I can get interested in telling a story that people don't know about associated with an event that everybody knows about."

Although Redford will forever be best known as an actor, he has directed eight films and won an Oscar for directing "Ordinary People" (1980). His films have all had particularly American themes; consider "The  Milagro Beanfield War," "A River Runs Through It," "Quiz Show," "The Horse Whisperer" and "The Legend Of Bagger Vance" (2000).

The script was written by historian James D. Solomon, and came to Redford as the first production of the new American Film Company, started by Omaha billionaire Joe Ricketts, who is also the new owner of the Chicago Cubs. That explains why on the day after the premiere, Redford threw out the first pitch at the Cubs opener.

"Joe wanted to take some of his money and create movies about American history," Redford explained.  "Jim Solomon spent 14 years on this project.  All though those years, no one would make this film because they felt Civil War period pieces aren't commercial unless they have a big battle scene.  But Joe Rickets put it forward.  It's nice to have an independently financed film. On the other hand, he's a businessman and it was very low budget. So you have to create Washington, DC, with no money."

What Redford did was go to Savannah, Georgia:

"Ironically, that was the only city in America where we could film Washington in 1865.  It was the only city that still had the infrastructure, like the town squares the way they were in those days.  We had to put mud and dirt in the streets and we had to take away all the electrical signs and there we took a small warehouse to create the Ford Theatre. There was a lot of hard work on production design and costumes, and things came together very fast on very little money.

"We spent a lot of time on the palette. I got excited by the idea that in those days, there was no electricity so there was only gas, torch, lantern and candle, so we experimented  with that. The faces of actors when they were in it were very almost translucent."

Details surrounding Mary Surratt's case will inevitably remind many viewers of the current controversy about how best to try the Guantanamo prisoners charged with the 9/11 conspiracy.

"Everybody knows the assassination," he said, "but inside that frame is a story that very few people know about. The injustice of Mary Surratt's trial as it relates to our own constitution was that she was tried by a military tribunal rather than at a civic trial. That wasn't the sole reason for making the movie; that was a good one but I would not be able to make it unless I could find an emotional core within that story.  And that existed  with the representation of Frederick Aiken, the lawyer, and because he didn't want the case.  He was a union soldier having to defend a Southern woman who he thought was guilty. She wasn't going to give him any leeway because  she thought he was against her. But he realized the Constitution was under threat, and to me that was the story.  

"When you talk about parallels, well, the parallels are there, they're obvious, but it's not for me to point them out. I'm focused on another story and that's the emotional relationship between the two of them which takes no political sides whatsoever.  How can you not see Guantanamo, how can you not see the Patriot Act, how can you not see habeas corpus being threatened?  But I'm not telling that story. That's for people to find out on their own."

What do you think? I asked him. Was Mary Surratt a conspirator?

"No one really knows.  The fact was, she ran a boarding house, the conspirators met there, her son was one of the conspirators, and certainly she knew. That I do believe.  How much she was actually a part of the assassination nobody knows and neither do I.  But I like that; I like the fact that it was never  even proven.

"Nobody knows because of the nature of the trial and the way things happened so quickly The Secretary of War, Stanton, says, 'I want these people buried and forgotten quick.'  So the trial was rushed.

"Kevin Kline was a little nervous in the beginning, playing such a heavy. I said, 'he's a great heavy because he has a point of view that's totally justifiable.' The country was in such danger at that time of falling apart, a unity that had just been formed was now under threat of breaking apart again; there could be an insurgency from the south that could come into Washington.  He had to take control, he had to be strong, he had to be powerful.  Very strong similarities to 9/11.  

"And so you gotta act quickly, you gotta be bold, you gotta be strong.  That's your duty and the belief that the American people want that; that gets into grey territory but you totally respect the fact that he felt he had to get order quickly.  So I wanted that point of view expressed in the movie so those people would understand that no matter how awful he may have been, things he did, that there was a point of view behind it that was understandable.  

Robin Wright plays Mary as a woman of certain degree of stoicism, I said. Another approach might have been to show her as more emotional.  

"What was she left with, after all?  She was left with nothing but her own integrity, her own pride.  So no, I didn't want a bleeding emotionality. It really was, if you wanna boil it all down, I mean, down, down, down to, it was about a mother's love for her son."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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