News / USA

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.'



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."

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs