TOPICS > Politics

Lincoln Assassination Film ‘The Conspirator’ Raises Timely Justice Questions

April 14, 2011 at 7:10 PM EDT
Ray Suarez reports on a new film profiling Mary Surratt, the sole woman implicated in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and the questions raised about the use of military commission trials, both then and now. He is joined by screenwriter James Solomon and retired U.S. Army Col. Fred Borch.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, a new movie about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and some provocative questions about military tribunals then and now.

Ray Suarez has our look.

RAY SUAREZ: On April 14, 1865, five days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox and with the Civil War drawing to a close, President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. He died the next morning.

The assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had not worked alone. He and his accomplices plotted and schemed at the boarding house of Mary Surratt, just blocks from the theater. Weeks later, Surratt and seven other alleged conspirators were tried before a military commission convened under the edict of the new president, Andrew Johnson.

The normal strictures of American justice didn’t apply. Surratt was convicted and sentenced to hang, despite the recommendation by five of the nine members of the military commission that she be shown mercy.

On July 7, 1865, a parasol shielding her from the sun, Surratt and three others were led to the gallows. She was the first woman to be executed by the United States government.

The story of her trial is the subject of the new film “The Conspirator,” directed by Robert Redford, starring Robin Wright as Mary Surratt and James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, the young Union Army captain and attorney given the task of defending her.

With me now to talk about the film, that period in history and how it resonates today are screenwriter James Solomon and retired U.S. Army Col. Fred Borch, a consultant to the film, who served as chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2003 and 2004.

James Solomon, why is this an important story to tell in 2011?

JAMES SOLOMON, “The Conspirator”: It was a good story to tell, I think, in 1993, when I began this.

I think it’s one of the great American stories not told. I, like many people, didn’t know there were multiple attacks the night Lincoln was assassinated. And I think everyone thinks they know the story of the Lincoln assassination. It turns out most of us don’t.

Didn’t know there were multiple attacks. Didn’t know hundreds were rounded up. Didn’t know there was a military trial, or eight civilians were put on trial, a mother who ran a boarding house. Didn’t know any of that, and found that fascinating, and that she was on trial likely for crimes committed by her own son.

And at the center was this extraordinary mother-son story about a mother abandoned by her own son, and a surrogate son, a Union colonel played by James McAvoy, as you said, who comes to the rescue of a Southern woman.

That, I thought was an extraordinary story. And I think it’s a timeless story.

RAY SUAREZ: Are you proposing another theory of how it really happened, or seeking to right a historical wrong, or retell a story that perhaps isn’t well-understood? What’s the main thrust here?

JAMES SOLOMON: Well, the main thrust was at the center was — is this extraordinary mother-son story and human story.

As — there happen to be parallels to the present never intended. I wrote this in the first few months of the Clinton presidency, and President Bush was not even yet the governor of Texas.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Fred Borch, that brings you in.

Were there echoes of Mary Surratt’s military commission trial in the work that you were doing in real life in 2003 and ’04?

COL. FRED BORCH (RET.) “The Conspirator”: Well, that’s an easy answer because the military commission that tried Mary Surratt was totally different from the military commission that I was involved in and what we have today.

And what the government was trying to accomplish in 1865 was very different as well. You’ve seen the movie. You know that Stanton, the war secretary, Holt, the judge advocate general, and President Johnson are determined to get quick convictions and hangings to deter any sort of future attacks.

And so, that’s very different. The military commission that I was involved in was really about still having a full and fair trial. And this was not a fair trial, the Civil War Commission.

RAY SUAREZ: But were some of the frustrations faced by Frederick Aiken echoed in some of the things that you heard uniformed JAGs talking about coming away from the early years of this process?

COL. FRED BORCH: Well, I think they were.

Having been a defense counsel, I think you’re always frustrated. But I think this movie is not an allegory for Guantanamo. And Jim has told you he wrote it before. But there certainly are echoes. There’s — the issues in the movie do resonate today, I think, because it’s a time of stress, and stress on the government, and how the government reacts. And that’s what I think is most interesting about the film.

JAMES SOLOMON: Ray, when I first wrote it, people would say: “A fascinating story. I had no idea this took place. Nicely told, but what’s its relevance to today?”

I heard that over and over again those first eight years. After Sept. 11, 2001, I never heard that.

RAY SUAREZ: The issue of whether justice is done, whether it’s seen to be done, and the public’s own desires was taken on head-on in the movie, though.

And in one scene, we see Reverdy Johnson, former attorney general of the United States, senator from Maryland, arguing with the secretary of war over whether the letter of the law or the need to protect public order and the public interest is really the master here.

Let’s take a look.

TOM WILKINSON, actor: This is a frightened country, Ed. You don’t need to scare us anymore.

KEVIN KLINE, actor: And who is to say that none of these things could happen? The unspeakable already has, a president assassinated, 600,000 dead. The world has changed, Reverdy.

TOM WILKINSON: Abandoning the Constitution is not the answer.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, that could have been, as they say, torn from the headlines. That really distills some of the arguments that are being had around the world in the war against terrorism.

COL. FRED BORCH: And I think this is really why the movie will appeal to people today, because, on April 14, and when Lincoln died, on April 15, 1865, the government was afraid, people were afraid that this was a Confederate attack to decapitate the Union, send it into chaos. We’re going to kill the president. We’re going to try to kill the secretary of state, and — and perhaps also attack Ulysses S. Grant.

It’s the same thing. We were all afraid on Sept. 11 and Sept. 12: Is this the beginning of a new kind of attack? Is this a new form of war?

And so, what resonates is what Stanton and President Johnson and the judge advocate general, Joe Holt, did in the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination, when the government was under incredible stress, how they balanced safety, national security with freedom is exactly what we wrestled with after 9/11.

JAMES SOLOMON: It’s also important, I think, to keep in mind that the trial took place just one month after the assassination, and the execution took place in July.

So, the compression of time is an extraordinarily important part of this story. And I think part of the reason probably so few of us are familiar with it is that Stanton was about making sure these assassins or alleged assassins were dead and buried and forgotten and in a sense accomplished that.

And to the historical record, so few of us know this story, we all just think of Booth and Ford’s Theatre and Lincoln, end of story. And I think that may be part of the reason.

COL. FRED BORCH: And Stanton wants to deter the Confederates from doing anything like this in the future.

RAY SUAREZ: The film is “The Conspirator.”

James Solomon, Fred Borch, thank you both.

JAMES SOLOMON: Thank you so much for having us. It’s a pleasure.

COL. FRED BORCH: Thank you very much for having us.