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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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<p>As a young priest he revived a parish in a "bad" district by the simple method of showing great devotion to the sick. Wanting to be a missionary, he joined the Society of Mary (Marists) at 28. Obediently, he taught in the seminary for five years. Then, as superior of seven Marists, he traveled to Western Oceania where he was entrusted with an apostolic vicariate (term for a region that may later become a diocese). The bishop accompanying the missionaries left Peter and a brother on Futuna Island in the New Hebrides, promising to return in six months. He was gone five years. </p><p>Meanwhile, Pedro struggled with this new language and mastered it, making the difficult adjustment to life with whalers, traders and warring natives. Despite little apparent success and severe want, he maintained a serene and gentle spirit and endless patience and courage. A few natives had been baptized, a few more were being instructed. When the chieftain's son asked to be baptized, persecution by the chieftain reached a climax. Father Chanel was clubbed to death, his body cut to pieces. </p><p>Within two years after his death, the whole island became Catholic and has remained so. Peter Chanel is the first martyr of Oceania and its patron.</p> American Catholic Blog Here is an often overlooked piece of advice: When trying to determine what God wants us to do, we should seek Him out and remain close to Him. Makes perfect sense doesn't it? If we are concerned about following the Lord's will, having a close relationship with Him makes the process much simpler.


 
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