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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

The Conspirator

By
John Mulderig
Source: Catholic News Service


Robin Wright and James McAvoy star in a scene from the movie "The Conspirator."
Nearly 150 years after she became the first woman in U.S. history to be executed by the federal government, Mary Surratt—the titular character in the engrossing historical drama "The Conspirator" (Roadside)—remains a controversial figure.

Hanged in 1865 for complicity in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, lingering questions about Surratt endure. Chief among them: What exactly did this devoutly Catholic, pro-Confederate widow know about the conspiracy to shoot the president, and when did she know it?

Like everyone else at the time, young Union Army officer-turned-lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) thinks he knows. Arm-twisted into representing Surratt by Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), the Unionist senator from Surratt's home state of Maryland, Aiken is initially convinced of his unwanted client's guilt.

As the owner of the Washington boardinghouse where John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) and his co-conspirators—including her own son John (Johnny Simmons)— met to mature their nefarious schemes, first to kidnap Lincoln, later to slay him, Surratt (movingly portrayed here by Robin Wright) surely must have known what was being planned under her roof.

That's a view of the matter shared by Lincoln's powerful secretary of war, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline). Determined to quell any future extremist acts on behalf of the moribund Confederacy—Lincoln's death came only days after Lee's surrender at Appomattox—Stanton pressures Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), the lead prosecutor at the military tribunal trying Surratt, to obtain a conviction by fair means or foul.

As he witnesses the ruthless legal maneuvering that results, Aiken begins to shift his views. His new, more sympathetic outlook leads to friendship with Mary's daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood). But it also threatens his social standing as a well-respected veteran, and alienates Sarah (Alexis Bledel), his socialite fiancee who has faithfully awaited Aiken's return from service.

A similarly balanced approach characterizes the portrayal of Surratt's faith. Her Catholicism, symbolized by the rosary she carries with her in prison and to the scaffold, is shown to further enflame Northern public opinion against her.

Fugitive John Surratt is sheltered by priests. Some viewers may interpret one priest's defense of the protection offered him as a veiled reference to the church's alleged failure to cooperate in the prosecution of more recent escapees from justice, namely clergymen accused of child sexual abuse. James Solomon's script, though, never makes this connection explicit.

The historical value of this impressive, predominantly fact-based recreation makes "The Conspirator" possibly acceptable for older teens, despite the elements listed below.

The film contains some wartime gore, a realistic hanging and a couple of crude and crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

*****
John Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.


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Pierre Toussaint: 
		<p>Born in modern-day Haiti and brought to New York City as a slave, Pierre died a free man, a renowned hairdresser and one of New York City’s most well-known Catholics. <br /><br />Pierre Bérard, a plantation owner, made Toussaint a house slave and allowed his grandmother to teach her grandson how to read and write. In his early 20s, Pierre, his younger sister, his aunt and two other house slaves accompanied their master’s son to New York City because of political unrest at home. Apprenticed to a local hairdresser, Pierre learned the trade quickly and eventually worked very successfully in the homes of rich women in New York City. <br /><br />When his master died, Pierre was determined to support his master’s widow, himself and the other house slaves. He was freed shortly before the widow’s death in 1807. </p>
		<p>Four years later he married Marie Rose Juliette, whose freedom he had purchased. They later adopted Euphémie, his orphaned niece. Both preceded him in death. He attended daily Mass at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street, the same parish that St. Elizabeth Seton attended. <br /><br />Pierre donated to various charities, generously assisting blacks and whites in need. He and his wife opened their home to orphans and educated them. The couple also nursed abandoned people who were suffering from yellow fever. Urged to retire and enjoy the wealth he had accumulated, Pierre responded, “I have enough for myself, but if I stop working I have not enough for others.” <br /><br />He was originally buried outside St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, where he was once refused entrance because of his race. His sanctity and the popular devotion to him caused his body to be moved to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. <br /><br />Pierre Toussaint was declared Venerable in 1996.</p>
American Catholic Blog It’s through suffering that we grow in endurance, character, and ultimately, in hope. Our suffering is not without value if we know Jesus. When you are suffering, you can pray and unite your sufferings to the only one who truly loves you perfectly or knows all you are feeling.

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