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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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Bartholomew: In the New Testament, Bartholomew is mentioned only in the lists of the apostles. Some scholars identify him with Nathanael, a man of Cana in Galilee who was summoned to Jesus by Philip. Jesus paid him a great compliment: “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him” (John 1:47b). When Nathanael asked how Jesus knew him, Jesus said, “I saw you under the fig tree” (John 1:48b). Whatever amazing revelation this involved, it brought Nathanael to exclaim, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (John 1:49b). But Jesus countered with, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this” (John 1:50b). 
<p>Nathanael did see greater things. He was one of those to whom Jesus appeared on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias after his resurrection (see John 21:1-14). They had been fishing all night without success. In the morning, they saw someone standing on the shore though no one knew it was Jesus. He told them to cast their net again, and they made so great a catch that they could not haul the net in. Then John cried out to Peter, “It is the Lord.” </p><p>When they brought the boat to shore, they found a fire burning, with some fish laid on it and some bread. Jesus asked them to bring some of the fish they had caught, and invited them to come and eat their meal. John relates that although they knew it was Jesus, none of the apostles presumed to inquire who he was. This, John notes, was the third time Jesus appeared to the apostles.</p> American Catholic Blog While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.<br /> –St. Francis of Assisi

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