"The Conspirator": Film and Historical Truth, Ron Briley, History News Network, February 7, 2011.
Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School. He is the author of The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad.
This is an abridgement of the review which is found in full at History News Network, February 7, 2011.
Although academic journals such as The American Historical Review and The Journal of American History have expanded their focus to consider cinema, most historians still seem to approach historical films with considerable suspicion. Thus, the American Historical Association’s (AHA) Executive Director James R. Grossman demonstrated both excitement and trepidation when he introduced a screening of The Conspirator on the last evening of the AHA’s 2011 annual meeting.
The 2011 film session, however, was somewhat different as, despite the disclaimer of Grossman, the AHA appeared to be endorsing a film project on which members of the historical organization served as consultants. The Conspirator is the first completed project of the American Film Company. CEO Joe Ricketts, founder of the online brokerage firm Ameritrade and a member of the family which owns the Chicago Cubs, explained to the assembled historians that his goal is to produce high quality and entertaining feature films which will attract adult audiences and be historically accurate. Ricketts asserted that with the rich variety of stories offered by American history there is no need for filmmakers to fabricate the nation’s past. The producer concluded that if The Conspirator is successful, the American Film Company is considering other projects such as a film on Paul Revere based upon the scholarship of David Hackett Fischer.
The production values of The Conspirator are certainly first rate. The film is directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Robert Redford, and the cast includes such respected performers as Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Tom Wilkinson, and Danny Huston. Budgeted for approximately $20 million, The Conspirator will be distributed for theatrical release in the spring by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions.
The conclusion of the [AHA] panel was that the film deserved high marks for its historical detail regarding the case of Mary Surratt, who was executed for conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. On the other hand, several members of the audience questioned whether it was really possible to make a motion picture about the Civil War without mentioning slavery. Thus, The Conspirator may be perceived as getting the details right, but missing what scholar Robert Rosenstone describes as the larger historical truths such as placing slavery at the center of our discussion on the Civil War.
Although the film focuses upon the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) by a military tribunal, the story is told from the viewpoint of her attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who was a Union war hero before resuming his law career. Aiken is reluctant to accept the Surratt case, but he is assigned the case by Reverdy Johnson, a former attorney general currently serving as a United States senator from Maryland.
The historians on the AHA panel, however, assumed that Surratt was probably involved with the murder conspiracy, but they did acknowledge that the government employed the prosecution of Surratt to gain leverage against her son.
. . . Several members of the AHA audience suggested, it becomes easy to read the film as an allegorical commentary on the response of the Bush administration to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Screenwriter Solomon, however, asserts that that the script for The Conspirator was written before 9/11. Nevertheless, it would certainly appear that doubts about the Patriot Act and concerns over violations of the civil liberties of those incarcerated in the global war on terror contributed to getting this script to the screen.
Yet, Solomon insists that his script is really rather ahistorical. He uses the stories of Mary Surratt and Frederick Aiken to examine the love of a mother for her son, alongside a surrogate son prepared to assume the role abandoned by John Surratt. This confession may explain why several women at the AHA screening expressed disappointment that a film ostensibly focusing upon a female protagonist becomes, in fact, a motion picture about the relationship between a mother and a son. The film belongs to Frederick Aiken and not Mary Surratt.
But this is not the most troubling issue regarding the film. As one AHA member observed, is it really possible to make a film about the Civil War era and not mention the word slavery? The Southern Surratt family had been slaveholders before falling into more difficult economic times, but this fact is not alluded to in the film. Thus, it is possible for viewers to provide alternative answers to this question which deny the centrality of the slavery issue to the origins of the Civil War.
Those who attended a secessionist ball in Charleston, South Carolina may assert that they are commemorating a commitment to states’ rights rather than celebrating an effort to preserve the institution of slavery. And The Conspirator fails to offer any cinematic challenge to such an assumption. One may view The Conspirator free from the disturbing questions of race and slavery. Perhaps this will make the film appealing to a larger audience, but it will do little to foster popular understanding of the Civil War as we observe the 150th anniversary of that conflict. The Conspirator is an entertaining film which includes more accurate historical detail than most Hollywood productions, but it misses some of the larger historical truths and issues which must be examined to understand America in the 1860s and the legacy of slavery and the Civil War.
CWL: The Internet Movie Database lists the release date as April 15.