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5.0 out of 5 stars Dark Moment of US Justice Concerning the First Woman Execution -- Possibly Redford's Best Film Since Ordinary People, August 6, 2011
This review is from: The Conspirator (Two-Disc Collector's Edition) (DVD)
Those films concerning the darker sides of the human condition which often questions our prejudicial attitudes, those attitudes we assume to be unshakable, are often the most important but not always the most popular. "The Conspirator" certainly resides in this category, a very tough and brutal episode of post-Civil War northern justice which puts into question the idea "the North" were all heroes, and "the South" were all villains. The story concerns the federal case against Mary Surratt whose only crime may have been owning the boarding house where the conspirators against Abraham Lincoln met to plan for the president's assassination only days after Lee surrendered to Grant. The trial may have been dangerously close to a kangaroo court in which a guilty verdict was preordained before the beginning of the trial as a means to restore peace. The two prejudicial attitudes the movie questions are the oft-portrayed morality of the North as opposed to the South, and that people who are put on trial must be guilty of something. Law enforcement does often operate with political ends in mind over carrying out justice, which is simply the punishment of the guilty and the freedom of the innocent.

In a sense, "the Conspirator" is about the post-Civil War legal system of the United States being "on trial". Secretary of War Stanton (played by Kevin Kline in one of his best performances) argues Surratt must be found guilty and condemned with the other conspirators as it will send a message of fear which will supposedly deter future conspirators and put a final end to all rebellion. The conspirators along with Surratt stand trial in a military tribunal, even though all are essentially civilians. However it appears there was really little or no evidence tying Surratt directly with the Lincoln assassination conspiracy. Her only crimes may have been knowing that some southerners were going to perpetrate some kind of crime, and these men were under her roof. Her other crime was she was a southern sympathizer, although based on historical evidence, the general consensus among scholars is she ultimately had nothing to do with it. Being a southern woman, the implication is the case against her is guilt by association.

Robin Wright offers a tour-de-force Academy-Award-caliber performance as Mary Surratt, a rather emotionally detached southern sympathizer, which she most probably was. Rather than playing into our escapist notions of unfair justice by portraying her as a completely sympathetic, beautiful, kind and loving character who becomes a victim of vigilante justice, the film presents her almost indifferently, as a somber and joyless prisoner. James MacAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, an attorney who previously fought for the Union side of the American Civil War, who reluctantly takes her case. Both Surratt and Aiken seem to have mutual distrust of one another when the case begins, but gradually Aiken believes a gross miscarriage of justice may be taking place. Aiken finds his footing when he begins to believe the fight is for rights guaranteed by the US Constitution and not just for Surratt.

Whether or not Surratt held onto to her southern leanings is not the point. The issue is whether or not a person should stand trial for a crime in which the evidence is largely associational and hearsay. And should the rule of law be compromised for the sake of other ends, such as for demonstrative purposes. Is the fact she owned a boarding house in which some conspirators met to perpetrate one of the most heinous of crimes in US history enough to hang her? She was accused of actively taking part in a conspiracy that led to the assassination of President Lincoln. Four others whose involvement was incidental at best, such as a Ford stage hand who had seen to Booth's horse being tethered on the fateful night, were sentenced to life in prison. John Surratt, Mary's son, may have had more knowledge of the conspiracy but remained in hiding during the trial. John Wilkes Booth who was ultimately responsible for Lincolin's death escaped the humiliation of trial and execution when he was killed by federal troops while on the run. The implication is the state department wanted a fourth conspirator, and Mary Surratt became the scape-goat for the fourth noose.

Redford was asked in an interview if he thought Mary Surratt was guilty, and his response was that she probably knew something, which is essentially my own view. However, knowing bits and pieces about a possible act in the future is not the same as being directly involved. The historical evidence is clear that she was put on trial as a fellow conspirator, not for failing to report overhearing plans for criminal behavior. She could have been charged with misprision of felony, which is essentially failing to report evidence and/or knowledge of a crime to law enforcement when she learned that some of her boarders were contemplating criminal behavior. I believe even during the 19th century, withholding evidence was not a hanging offense. But the powers-that-be decided swift and brutal justice was necessary to end all contemplations of future conspiracy, and Mary Surratt was added to the list of conspirators. I wonder what Abraham Lincoln would have thought about these proceedings, and if he would have approved of the course of some of the trials. Based on what I know of Lincoln, and I'm no scholar, I would have to conclude he would have detested how these proceedings were conducted and at least altered their conduct if he had had the power to do so.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 19, 2011 9:46:00 AM PDT
Laurie Frost says:
I really hate it when people make comments like you did about the 'oft shown moral superiority of the North,' without explaining what you are talking about to those of us that don't find it so obvious. Can you give me a couple of examples?
I would have to say from my observation of pop culture that it is Southern figures that are the ones much more likely to be portrayed as the moral superiors in the conflict. See Gary Gallagher's book "Union" for more on that.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 19, 2011 3:22:36 PM PDT
I don't think you read my review correctly. Part of my review says: "puts into question the idea "the North" were all heroes, and "the South" were all villains." The movie and my review is about the miscarriage of justice perpetrated by the North. SW

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 19, 2011 3:28:17 PM PDT
The movie questions or puts into doubt the supposed morality of the North: "The two prejudicial attitudes the movie questions are the oft-portrayed morality of the North as opposed to the South, and that people who are put on trial must be guilty of something."

Posted on Sep 7, 2011 6:02:19 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 7, 2011 6:04:14 AM PDT
I'm afraid that the formal, legal definition of "conspiracy" more than covers what Mary Suratt's role in this affair most certainly was. If one is even party to (knowing about, though not directly involved in) an illegal act against the government, and fails to notify the proper officials of that knowledge, that person can be tried as a conspirator, along with the one(s) who actually committed the physical crime.

And as for Honest Abe, he was the one responsible for suspending the individual's right to habeus corpus during this time, which was why it was denied Mrs. Suratt at the 11th hour. Andrew Johnson was just carrying out Lincoln's policy, in that regard.

Check out Edward Steers excellent book "Blood on the Moon" for a more detailed explanation of this, if you are interested.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 16, 2011 4:22:51 PM PDT
As far as I know, failing to report knowledge of a crime was not a hanging offense, even in the 19th century. I agree, she may have been guilty of having knowledge that something was up, but she was charged with having participated directly in the conspiracy. As far as I know, it was Stanton's decision to press full charges against her because he wanted four conspirators. In a sense, she took the place of Booth who had already been killed. Suspension of Habeas Corpus was enacted during the war especially for war criminals/suspects, not unlike what the Bush admin has been doing with terrorist suspects. Edwin Stanton decided to use a military tribunal for the trial of the four conspirators, even though the four were in fact civilians, not really war criminals. And of course, by this time the war was over. Also, I think the a writ of habeus corpus is relevant when the government is holding someone in custody and suspending trial. Surratt was definitely put on trial. However, five of the nine judges asked for her sentence to be reduced to life in prison. The request was apparently sent to Johnson. Johnson claims he never saw it while others claim Johnson did see it and refused to sign it. Still very controversial and debated by historians today.
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