Robert Redford's latest movie, "The
Conspirator," stars James McAvoy and Robin Wright and tackles an
overlooked footnote of American history: the case of Mary Surratt, the first
woman ever executed by the federal government.
"It's a story that's not really been told," he
told me during the Sundance Film Festival. "Very few people know about
what this story's about, and yet the story is connected to one of the greatest
events in our history, the assassination of Lincoln."
Check out the trailer:
As you can see, the movie is a legal potboiler set during
the uneasy days following the surrender of the Confederacy. Screenwriter James
Solomon spent 14 years researching the story, pulling much of the dialogue from
actual trial transcripts. That historical accuracy was critically important to Redford, who previously directed such period films as
"A River Runs Through It" and "Quiz Show."
"You have to be authentic," Redford
said. "There's no way I can go into something like this without knowing
that the facts I had assembled to tell the story were accurate."
As you no doubt learned in grade school, Abraham Lincoln
was assassinated by famed actor John Wilkes Booth in a box seat at Ford's
Theatre. Booth was eventually tracked down and killed in a burning barn in Virginia.
In the aftermath of the assassination, the government
rounded up scores of suspects. Eight people were ultimately tried and convicted
in a military tribunal. One was Mary Surratt, whose son was Booth's right-hand
man and who ran a boarding house where Booth and company met to plan the
attack. Whether or not Surratt was part of the conspiracy has long been the
subject of historical debate.
"There was no guarantee she was involved. They were
not able to prove it," said Redford.
"She was stoic in the defense of herself. And they put her in a military
tribunal, which should have been a civil trial."
Enter Frederick Aiken, a decorated Union officer. Through
politics, fate, and dumb luck, he ended up with the career-killing assignment
of representing one of the most hated people in America.
"The story was about this man having to defend this
woman he didn't want to defend, who went from not wanting to have anything to
do with it to totally believing that this was an unjust situation. That to me
is what the film's about," said Redford.
The lengths to which the government went to ensure a
conviction were, even in this post-9/11 world, shocking. There were patently
partial judges at the tribunal, flagrant jury tampering, and ultimately a
Was Redford conscious of any resonances between this
historical case and modern-day America
when he made the movie? Redford grew cagey.
"This is tricky territory. When I got the script, I
thought, uh oh. There are obvious parallels with how this country is today.
We're not making something up here to make a political point. It's there. It's
up to the audience to find it and say 'Wow, how have we progressed? Have we? Or
are we repeating ourselves?' But I can't talk about that."
"The Conspirator" opens on April 15.