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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Conspirator

A young lawyer defends Mrs Surratt in a capital case of Lincoln's assassination

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(2011) Inter arma, silent leges (In times of war, the law falls silent), "sacrificing sacred rights out of revenge." While Frederick Aiken's ultimate belief as to whether or not Mary Surratt was guilty at all of participating in the plot to murder President Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, and Secretary of State Seward remains obscure in this historical drama from director Robert Redford - screenplay by James Solomon from a story in collaboration with Gregory Bernstein, and score by Mark Isham - his certainty as to the wrongs, violating the spirit and letter of the US Constitution and the nation's legacy, committed by the military commission appointed by Secretary of War Stanton that decided her fate is not.

Following actor/assassin John Wilkes Booth's firing a bullet into the head of Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865, along with a simultaneous attack on William H. Seward in his home - the accomplice assigned to kill Andrew Johnson failed to act - Sec of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) takes charge of the government's actions to apprehend and swiftly punish the conspirators.

After Booth is trapped and shot dead inside a burning barn in Virginia, seven individuals - Lewis Payne (who daggered Seward), George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O'Laughlen, Edmund Spangler, Samuel Arnold, and Dr Samuel Mudd (who set Booth's broken leg) - are brought to trial along with Mrs Mary E. Surratt (Robin Wright), a 40-year-old widow, whose 21-year-old son John (Johnny Simmons) had invited Booth and others to meet secretly within his mother's boarding house.

Formerly the US attorney general under President Zachary Taylor, Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) of Maryland, feeling abhorrence for an atrocity of a military trial of civilians, asks an inexperienced 28-year-old lawyer, Capt Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who had served gallantly for the Union, to assist him with defending Mrs Surratt. When Aiken reacts with revulsion at representing any of the assassins involved with the horrendous plot, the senator reminds him: "Alleged assassins, counselor."

Attired entirely in black, admittedly a sympathizer of the Confederate cause, Mary Surratt enters a plea of innocence, as do all of the others. In an address to the commission, Sen Johnson expresses his outrage: "There's no presumption of innocence, no burden of proof, no jury of your peers, and no appeal." Judging from the unrepentant tone for "enhanced interrogations" of detainees and the implementation of military tribunals in his new memoir, I don't doubt that Dick Cheney would side with the commission headed by Judge Advocate Joseph Holt (Danny Hutton).

Adamant that Mrs Surratt (who according to the rules established may not speak in her own defense) deserves a defense, Sen Johnson further complains to the handpicked generals of the commission: "We all mourn the loss of our leader, but in our grief, let us not betray our better judgment and partake in an inquisition." Realizing that the questioning of his loyalty to the Union as an old Southerner may hamper his client's chances of acquittal, Reverdy turns over the case entirely to the Yankee captain.

In preparation for the trial Aiken visits Mrs Surratt in her prison cell (already convinced that "Those generals have made up their minds"), who tells her attorney, "Those men were customers, nothing more," and interviews her daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood). Anna's brother John - unfound in hiding, the only member of the conspiracy not captured or killed - fled for Canada in early April, two weeks before the assassination, whom she says intended to kidnap, not kill, Lincoln.

The first witness for the prosecution, Louis Weichmann, surprisingly testifies against Mary, though Aiken draws some attention to the witness's suspect credibility on the stand. Nevertheless, Aiken, continuing to assume Mrs Surratt's guilt, informs Sen Johnson: "Proof or not, don't give a damn what happens to her." Reverdy replies: "If you can prove that she's guilty, you can take yourself off the case."

Meanwhile, Sen Johnson confronts Sec Stanton, who "keeps fear alive" among the southern states with this travesty, by saying: "Abandoning the Constitution is not the answer." Back at the trial, when Mary rises in anger, accusing another witness, John Lloyd, of lying, Judge Holt reprimands her: "Control yourself, madam. Such outbursts will only prejudice your case." To which she retorts: "Oh, Lord. I just don't see how I could possibly further prejudice this case, sir."

Aware that he can in neither outcome prevail - while his fiancé Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel) tells him he's chosen devotion to Mary's cause over her - Aiken presses on with the only possible strategy to save his client from a predetermined fate, that of convincing the commission that her son John is the guilty party and that they are attempting to punish her for his crimes.

The capital case against Mrs Surratt rested on her acquaintance with Booth, Lloyd's uncorroborated accusations, and her failure to recognize Lewis Payne - a boarder who went by another name - in the dark one night. Who are the tyrants in this episode of our national history? Sic semper tyrannis.

"Ironically, … a case was pending before the Supreme Court, questioning the jurisdiction of military courts in cases involving civilians," from an online excerpted narrative taken from Surratt House and Tavern…A Page in American History, published by the MNCPPC, and from The Surratt Family & John Wilkes Booth-Compiled from the research of James O. Hall: "In 1866, less than a year … [later], the Supreme Court ruled that a military court had no jurisdiction in civilian cases, if the civil courts were open. When the assassination conspiracy trial was conducted by a military court in 1865, the civil courts in the District of Columbia were open."

Eventually rising to the rank of colonel, Aiken would marry Sarah and leave the law for journalism, becoming the first city editor of The Washington Post; he died in 1878 at the age of 41.

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Copyright © 2011 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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