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Film Sheds New Light on Lincoln Assassination

'The Conspirator' directed by Robert Redford sheds new light on one of the most significant events in US history

Robin Wright portrays Mary Surratt and James McAvoy takes on the role of attorney Frederick Aiken in 'The Conspirator.'
Robin Wright portrays Mary Surratt and James McAvoy takes on the role of attorney Frederick Aiken in 'The Conspirator.'

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Most Americans know that U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. But they probably don’t know that Booth was part of a complex conspiracy. Booth was hunted down and shot by authorities 12 days after the assassination.

Four alleged conspirators were executed and another four were sentenced to prison. Now, a new film directed by Robert Redford sheds light on one of the most significant events in U.S. history

On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln is shot while watching a play at the Ford’s Theater in Washington. He dies a short while later, and the U.S. is thrown into chaos.  

The assassin was John Wilkes Booth, an American stage actor. While most people believe Booth acted alone, there were actually eight others involved in a conspiracy targeting not only the president, but also the vice president and the secretary of state. Booth was caught and killed shortly after his escape. One of the conspirators got away but the rest were arrested and given prison sentences.

A new film called "The Conspirator," directed by Robert Redford, portrays the chaotic state of the government in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination, which came just days after the Confederate south had surrendered to the Union north, marking the end of the Civil War.

The film focuses on the military trial of Mary Surratt, mother of the alleged conspirator who escaped. She is charged with conspiracy because she owns a boarding house where her son John Surratt held regular meetings with his fellow conspirators.

Frederick Aiken is an attorney who fought in the Union army against the south. At first he is reluctant to defend Surratt, partly because he feels he is betraying his comrades and also because he believes she is guilty. But he changes his mind after realizing she may not get a fair trial.

He thinks one way to help her is to find her son - the real conspirator. But an outraged Surratt refuses. While the film focuses on the relationship between Surratt and her attorney, another story unfolds as well - that of a devoted mother willing to do anything to save her son.

James McAvoy, Robert Redford and Robin Wright at the premiere of 'The Conspirator' at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC on April 10, 2011.
James McAvoy, Robert Redford and Robin Wright at the premiere of 'The Conspirator' at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC on April 10, 2011.

The film premiered recently at the same theater where President Lincoln was killed. Fans showed up to catch a glimpse of the stars and the dignitaries who attended.

Director Robert Redford explained that he was drawn to the story because "it was a story that nobody knew about."

"Everyone knew about the situation with Lincoln - everybody knew about that - but I found that very few people, if anybody, knew about an event connected to it, and I wanted to tell that story," he said.

He added that the story had another draw for him too.

"It’s really about a mother’s love for her son. Because her sacrifice of herself, her stubbornness and her feistiness, really has to do with protecting her son. That interested me - the emotionality of it."

Scottish stage and screen actor James McAvoy takes on the role of attorney Frederick Aiken.

"This incredibly young and vital and energetic country was tearing itself apart and then trying to put itself back together again. How was it going to do that? Was it going to do that lawfully or unlawfully?" said McAvoy. "And my character, who initially would have happily seen her hang unlawfully, comes around to loving his country even more, so much so that he understands that he has to love the law and he has to love the Constitution if he’s going to love his country and therefore he can’t let her hang."

The film's humanity appealed to actress Robin Wright, who plays the role of Mary Surratt.

"It’s not so much about historical evidence. We had those in the history books. It’s a real piece about human behavior," she said.

Fred Borch, a consultant on the film, says what the movie is trying to do is to show you that guilt or innocence aside, she didn’t get a fair trial, and nor did the others.

"The government was so afraid that if they didn’t stomp on this conspiracy, that there might be more attacks by the Confederates coming."

Robert Redford directs James McAvoy in 'The Conspirator.'
Robert Redford directs James McAvoy in 'The Conspirator.'

Borch says the story is based on the truth.

"Well I think it’s very accurate in the sense that you can’t duplicate the reality of April, 1865, but this is about as close as you can get. And one of the reasons is that the movie is mostly about a criminal trial and there was a court reporter who took down almost every word that was said in court."

Director Redford hopes the film will make people think of President Lincoln’s assassination in a different light.

"I’ve never deluded myself into thinking that films change anybody’s opinion, or has an impact that’s going to change policy or anything like that, but I would think that being aware of what happened and seeing how that process has repeated itself, might strike a chord. I would hope so."

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