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Redford's 'Conspirator' Begins As Lincoln's Life Ends

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Redford's 'Conspirator' Begins As Lincoln's Life Ends

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Redford's 'Conspirator' Begins As Lincoln's Life Ends

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The other night, Robert Redford visited Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. It's the theater where President Abraham Lincoln was killed in 1865. Redford premiered a film that shows Lincoln's assassination at the end of the Civil War. The Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth shoots Lincoln during a play, then leaps onstage to deliver a dramatic line.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Conspirator")

Mr. TOBY KEBBELL (Actor): (as John Wilkes Booth) Sic semper tyrannis - the South is avenged.

INSKEEP: Booth cries out in Latin: Thus always to tyrants.

The end of Lincoln's life is the beginning of Redford's film, "The Conspirator." Redford explores the trial of a woman accused of joining the assassination plot, Mary Surratt.

Mr. ROBERT REDFORD (Director, "The Conspirator"): Mary Surratt was a woman who ran a boarding house where the conspirators met, including her son, who was one of the conspirators. There was no evidence that she conspired with them to kill the president, but there was no evidence that she didn't.

INSKEEP: In the film she's taken before a military tribunal, rather than a civilian court, over the protest of her lawyers.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Conspirator")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) I move for termination.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character) Termination?

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) On the grounds this trial is unconstitutional. The defendant is a civilian entitled to a public trial before a jury of her peers.

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) The attorney general has affirmed the legitimacy of this proceeding.

Unidentified Man #1: Has he furnished a verdict as well?

Mr. REDFORD: At the heart of this, the guilt or innocence of a person was rushed to judgment by a military tribunal of Union officers over a woman who was a Southern woman. But then you get into it, and when you have the story of the defense lawyer - a person who was a Union soldier - having to defend a woman he didn't think was innocent, and also she was of the side he fought against - to me, that tension and the arc of those two characters as they battle it out, was where the real story was.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to a little bit of that tension as you portray it onscreen. This is Mary Surratt and her defense lawyer in their initial meeting in prison, before her trial.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Conspirator")

Mr. JAMES MCAVOY (Actor): (as Frederick Aiken) And the assassins were frequent visitors to your home.

Ms. ROBIN WRIGHT (Actor): (as Mary Surratt) Yes.

Mr. MCAVOY: (as Frederick Aiken) You don't even deny having been acquainted with John Wilkes Booth and the others behind bars?

Ms. WRIGHT: (as Mary Surratt) No, sir. I do not. My husband died a drunk, Mr. Aiken, and left me loads of debt. I had to support my family, so I rented rooms to boarders. Those men were customers, nothing more.

Mr. MCAVOY: (as Frederick Aiken) And you never considered their allegiances.

Ms. WRIGHT: (as Mary Surratt) I didn't ask about their allegiances.

Mr. MCAVOY: (as Frederick Aiken) What about yours, Ma'am?

INSKEEP: She never gives it away in this film, does she?

Mr. REDFORD: No, and I think she shouldn't, because it makes the film - well, to me - I mean it made the story more interesting to me, what she would not give away, and that leaves it up to you to try to think or decide for yourself. And look, if I had any hope for a film, it's not to change anybody's mind or to make such an impact that it's going to turn into some sort of policy. It's simply just to maybe make people think about something.

INSKEEP: Historians have spent a lot of time thinking about Mary Surratt. She was on the Southern side. She did know all the conspirators. And James L. Swanson, author of two books about the assassination and its aftermath, says she definitely took part in an earlier plot to kidnap the president.

Mr. JAMES L. SWANSON (Historian): If you read the transcripts of Mary Surratt's interrogation by military authorities after her arrest, you can see she knows more. It comes off the page. She's very clever. She's deceitful.

INSKEEP: Mary Surratt even met privately with the assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Mr. SWANSON: When Booth went to Mary Surratt's boarding house on the afternoon of April 14th, he had already decided he would attempt to kill Lincoln that night.

INSKEEP: But did he tell her?

Mr. SWANSON: We don't know. They were alone. They met in private. We have no idea what they discussed.

INSKEEP: Swanson thinks they likely discussed the assassination plot, but that sliver of ambiguity has always made people wonder. One of the crucial witnesses against Mary Surratt admitted he was drunk. She was tried at a time of great national distress and was hanged despite protests against executing a woman.

It is hard not to see the film as a commentary on present-day military trials in the war on terror, though Redford denies that's his purpose.

Mr. REDFORD: I think over the years, some of the films I've made have sort of put me in the category of being on the left side of the aisle. And I understand that. I don't think that's accurate, if you look carefully at the films, because I like seeing both points of view...

INSKEEP: What films are you thinking of when you say that?

Mr. REDFORD: "All the President's Men," maybe "The Candidate," "Quiz Show," "Three Days of the Condor." I mean those are films that clearly had to do with issues that were involving our country and the media and so forth. But I like to show that there are two sides of an equation.

For example, in "The Conspirator" there was a scene developed for just that purpose, where you have Secretary of War Stanton, who was the one who violated the Constitution because he felt it had to be done to protect the country, which could have fallen apart in this tenuous moment. And then you had on the other side, Reverdy Johnson, the lawyer who had worked against him for several years. And they had an argument where Stanton had to say, look, this had to be done.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Conspirator")

Mr. KEVIN KLINE (Actor): (as Edwin Stanton) This trial will do more to keep the peace than any paper treaty could.

Mr. TOM WILKINSON (Actor): (as Reverdy Johnson) How'd you convince yourself of that?

Mr. KLINE: (as Edwin Stanton) Because justice, swift and firm, will help deter the South from ever conspiring again, as well as discouraging the North from seeking revenge.

Mr. WILKINSON: (as Reverdy Johnson) What about the rule of law?

Mr. KLINE: (as Edwin Stanton) My first responsibility is to ensure that this war stays won.

Mr. REDFORD: Whether you agreed with him or not, had Stanton only been seen as the villain who did some horrible things, including seeing a woman hung by military trial that should have been a civic trial, that would have been too much like a mustache-twirling villain from the old days.

I feel the complexity of this country is best shown if you have two different points of view arguing it out.

INSKEEP: "The Conspirator" is sympathetic to Mary Surratt but never proclaims her innocence. Several characters question the wisdom of overriding the Constitution, though several presidents have done that through history, including Abraham Lincoln himself.

Do you feel you learned something about the country that you didn't know by going through this story and learning it in the depth that you needed to learn it to make this film?

Mr. REDFORD: Yes. The films I've made are always about the country I was born and raised in. I'm fascinated with America. But I don't see America as just black or white. I don't see America as yes or no. I see the complexities because I've learned about them through my own life's journey.

When I was a kid, I was - athletics was my thing. It was a way out of a lower working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles. And I remember the slogan when I was a kid. There was a lot of sloganeering going on 'cause the war was still going on. And I remember: It doesn't matter whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game that matters. Well, I found that was a lie.

There's another side to this country that sits underneath the story we're being told. So I guess that led me to want to make these films, and I probably always will.

INSKEEP: Well, Robert Redford, thanks very much.

Mr. REDFORD: You're welcome. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Robert Redford directed "The Conspirator." We also spoke with James L. Swanson, author of "Manhunt" and "Bloody Crimes."

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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