Redford Talks About ‘The Conspirator’

Movie Talk

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

presidential directive.

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.