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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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Anthony Grassi: Anthony’s father died when his son was only 10 years old, but the young lad inherited his father’s devotion to Our Lady of Loreto. As a schoolboy he frequented the local church of the Oratorian Fathers, joining the religious order when he was 17.
<p>Already a fine student, he soon gained a reputation in his religious community as a "walking dictionary" who quickly grasped Scripture and theology. For some time he was tormented by scruples, but they reportedly left him at the very hour he celebrated his first Mass. From that day, serenity penetrated his very being.
</p><p>In 1621, at age 29, Anthony was struck by lightning while praying in the church of the Holy House at Loreto. He was carried paralyzed from the church, expecting to die. When he recovered in a few days he realized that he had been cured of acute indigestion. His scorched clothes were donated to the Loreto church as an offering of thanks for his new gift of life.
</p><p>More important, Anthony now felt that his life belonged entirely to God. Each year thereafter he made a pilgrimage to Loreto to express his thanks.
</p><p>He also began hearing confessions, and came to be regarded as an outstanding confessor. Simple and direct, he listened carefully to penitents, said a few words and gave a penance and absolution, frequently drawing on his gift of reading consciences.
</p><p>In 1635 he was elected superior of the Fermo Oratory. He was so well regarded that he was reelected every three years until his death. He was a quiet person and a gentle superior who did not know how to be severe. At the same time he kept the Oratorian constitutions literally, encouraging the community to do likewise.
</p><p>He refused social or civic commitments and instead would go out day or night to visit the sick or dying or anyone else needing his services. As he grew older, he had a God-given awareness of the future, a gift which he frequently used to warn or to console.
</p><p>But age brought its challenges as well. He suffered the humility of having to give up his physical faculties one by one. First was his preaching, necessitated after he lost his teeth. Then he could no longer hear confessions. Finally, after a fall, he was confined to his room. The archbishop himself came each day to give him holy Communion. One of Anthony’s final acts was to reconcile two fiercely quarreling brothers.</p> American Catholic Blog God of love, as I come to the end of this Advent season, my heart is ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus. I join with Mary in saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Nothing is impossible with you, O God.

 
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