Yesterday, The Conspirator was released on DVD, so I checked it out of the Redbox right away and watched it with a friend. As much as I love James McAvoy, I didn’t make it out to see this film in the movie theatre. Now that I’ve seen it, I don’t regret waiting. I do like the film, and McAvoy is fascinating to watch, as always. It’s just that my friend and I had to stop the film often, trying to figure out what was happening. Maybe we should have just watched it straight through to see if things became clearer, but that’s just not our style.
The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford, is about the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Most of us know that John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at the Ford Theatre at the end of the Civil War. I’ll confess right here that most of my knowledge of the affair comes from that list of similarities between the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations, the one that comes with copper pennies attached. Turns out there was a conspiracy to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward at the same time. Eight conspirators were arrested, and one of them was a woman. Mary Surratt owned the boardinghouse where the men met, and her son John was identified as a co-conspirator. Because he escaped capture, Mary Surratt was arrested and tried by a military tribunal, even though she was a civilian. The movie focuses on her trial and the young Northerner, Frederick Aiken, who reluctantly defends her. He begins the trial convinced of her guilt, and while he’s never sure of her innocence, he becomes passionate about defending her rights as a citizen. She is denied a regular trial, a jury of her peers, even the chance to testify on her own behalf. According to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the war-torn country is divided and in chaos, and only a swift, harsh sentence for those involved in the conspiracy will restore order.
The part of the movie that confused us was right at the beginning, so I’m confident that I’m not giving away any plot spoilers. It was the sequence showing the assassination attempts. Who is that twitchy fellow who goes inside—a club? a private home?—has a drink at the bar, hides the gun in his jacket, looks around, runs out and rides away? Turns out he is George Atzerodt, who was supposed to kill Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood Hotel. He lost his nerve. My friend and I spent half the movie assuming that this fellow was John Surratt, since he ran away. It wasn’t until the actor playing John finally appeared in a flashback that we realized it was a different fellow. Sure, upon viewing the movie a second time with the audio commentary, I could see that this Atzerodt fellow was one of the conspirators who was arrested. Let’s face it, men with beards and moustaches tend to look the same.
Then there was the stabbing of William Seward. Why was he lying in a bed with a strange contraption on his head and mouth before he was attacked? Turns out Seward was in a bad carriage accident and was suffering from a broken arm, a broken jaw, and a concussion. The jaw splint he was wearing deflected the assassin’s knife from his jugular vein, and Seward survived his brutal attack by Lewis Payne. (More confusion here, by the way, since Lewis Payne was born Lewis Powell, and that’s how he’s listed on wikipedia.) The way The Conspirator intercuts the three assassination attempts, it’s hard to tell if the fellow being knocked out on top of the stairs is guarding Lincoln or Seward, if the conspirator who runs away was in the same building as the conspirator stabbing Seward…again, it would be much clearer if most of these guys didn’t have bushy moustaches. Maybe on a big theatre screen, it would have been easier to tell them all apart, but this is a review of the DVD.
All this confusion happens in the first fifteen minutes of the film. Once that’s over, the movie slows down and concentrates on Aiken, Mary Surratt, her daughter Anna, and a few other key figures. There are some wonderful actors here, including a favorite of mine, John Cullum. He’s best know for Northern Exposure, but I love him from my LP of the stage musical Shenandoah. The only casting that I question is Justin Long. You can put him in a bushy moustache, but you’ll never believe he’s from 1865. A nice surprise is Jonathan Groff of Spring Awakening and Glee. I didn’t recognize him with his hair tamped down, but he does very well in a small role. Another excellent actor who is hard to recognize, until he speaks, is Kevin Kline as Stanton.
I complained to my friend at the beginning of the movie that not only is James McAvoy wearing a beard, he is using an American accent and his eyes are brown instead of blue. Fortunately, the eyes look brown due to the lighting of that particular scene. They are very blue throughout the rest of the film. McAvoy is great here, but isn’t he always? I listened to the first 38 minutes of Redford’s audio commentary, and it took 35 minutes for him to get around to discussing McAvoy. He revealed that McAvoy is allergic to horses. I guess we won’t be seeing him in many westerns! Earlier, Redford mentioned rather pointedly that often filmmakers are forced to cast well-known faces instead of great actors. Since he kept praising the other performers and not saying anything about McAvoy, I was getting pretty worried. Redford was just taking his time. It seems he likes McAvoy as much as the rest of us. He had some interesting insights about directing him. Redford said that McAvoy’s intense energy allows him to do almost nothing without being boring in a scene. Redford wants McAvoy to trust that energy more. It will be interesting to see if McAvoy takes that to heart in his future performances.
The Conspirator left me with more questions. During the Civil War, was there a border between the North and the South that was patrolled or monitored? Could civilians travel or move across it? I wonder this because Mary Surratt and her family were southerners who moved to Washington DC during the war. I suppose a lot of civilians were accused of spying for the other side. I also wonder what happened to John Clampitt. According to wikipedia (never the most reliable source!) Mary Surratt was defended by another fellow besides Aiken. Now, this is not the Maryland Senator and Attorney General Reverdy Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson in the movie. It’s yet another lawyer. Having too many lawyers must not have seemed dramatic enough for the movie. Poor Clampitt, forgotten all over again!