'The Conspirator's' little secret

After an attack of confidence-shaking violence by political terrorists, a leading U.S. legal figure pushes for a civilian trial instead of a military tribunal for a suspect in the attack. But he is overridden by a political tide arguing against a public trial and in favor of national security.

It sounds a lot like Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.'s attempt to prosecute accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a New York federal court. In fact, it's a movie about an event that took place well more than a century ago: "The Conspirator," Robert Redford's account of the trial of accused John Wilkes Booth collaborator Mary Surratt.

Despite the parallels to the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the little secret of the Lincoln assassination film, which opens Friday, is that it took root many years before the attacks of Sept. 11.

"Many people have been making the Guantanamo comparisons, which is really odd to me," said screenwriter James Solomon, referring to the reaction after "The Conspirator" screened for preview audiences and critics around the country. "It was 1993 when I started this. George W. Bush wasn't even the governor of Texas yet. Then again, the real-world circumstances provide a great understanding of the context. People can now bring their own awareness of the chaos, the fear, the anxiety that was plaguing the country at that time."

Nearly any high school student can recite the basics of the Lincoln assassination. Just days after Robert E. Lee surrenders to Union forces, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth shoots the president in Ford's Theatre. Booth is killed 11 days later in a standoff with Union troops.

But the reality is more complex. Booth was part of a larger group of conspirators that, intent on rallying the Confederate army, also plotted to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. The far-reaching plot led to the Johnson administration rounding up dozens of people connected to Booth.

In a turn that particularly evokes Guantanamo, eight of the conspirators were tried by a military tribunal over the protests of Edward Bates, who served as attorney general for four years under Lincoln. (New Atty. Gen. James Speed and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) argued that a civil trial could reignite the Civil War, a point that has echoes of the anti-Holder argument about empowering terrorists.)

"Someone handed us a platter," Redford, in an interview about his movie, said of the release's timing.

A courtroom drama with a surprisingly emotional core, "The Conspirator" focuses on the trial of Surratt (Robin Wright), who owns the boarding house where Booth and his cohorts plotted, and specifically on the chess match between her reluctant attorney, a young lawyer and Union veteran named Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), and Stanton, who is hell-bent on prosecuting the woman. Surratt's plight is complicated by a loyalty to her AWOL son, one of the Booth cohorts, whom the government is keen to find but whom she continues to protect against her own interests. The film's script is marked by crisp courtroom exchanges often taken from the real transcripts. (Thursday marks the 146th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination.)

Although "The Conspirator" clearly gives the impression that the Surratt trial was rushed and unfair, Solomon and Redford say they wanted to stay above politics — and, certainly, above the Mohammed question.

"There is often a rationale for moving expeditiously, but in the heat of the moment, we're capable of making errors in judgment," said the first-time screenwriter. "But I didn't want to comment on present-day circumstances. Researching this movie gave me a greater appreciation of the balance between the law and security."

Redford says he is aware that some might be tempted to dismiss the film because of his liberal politics. "I imagine no matter what I do it's going to be pushed over by some people," said the director whose last film, "Lions for Lambs," was criticized for left-wing preachiness.

But skeptics may want to hold their judgment. Despite its director's bona fides, "The Conspirator" doesn't fit neatly in a box. It tilts in the direction of civil liberties but it also makes out some Union figures, thought by many modern-day liberals as champions of civil rights, as hawks more concerned with national security.

Solomon didn't start out as a history buff. Leaving behind a stint as a foreign correspondent for UPI, he came to Hollywood more than 20 years ago to study directing, eventually assisting Barry Levinson on his Baltimore-based family saga "Avalon." Shortly after, he came across the story of Surratt. He couldn't believe anyone hadn't made a movie about it.

"Most screenwriters look far and wide for a good story, and this was sitting under all of our noses," said Solomon, who now lives in New York.

He and a friend, Gregory Bernstein, spent 16 years researching, writing and peddling the script. For roughly half that time, they found that the civil liberties question were "really abstract notions." Their experience — and others' reactions — changed that Tuesday in September. "I had written a story about military trial with issues of security and civil liberties at the center. And then I saw them play out on the news," Solomon said. Suddenly, the writer went from hearing questions about the script's relevance to criticism that he had ripped a story from the headlines.

In 2008, after several false starts in development, Solomon was introduced to the American Film Company. A startup with a conscience, its goal was to produce silver-screen tales about American history. ("Our idea of a romantic comedy is the story of Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong," quips the company's Rob Stone.) The label decided to produce and finance "The Conspirator." "We were looking for big characters from American history, sort of the way studios look for well-known television brands or comic books," said the company's Brian Falk.

They wanted Redford to direct, but "initially when I got it, I didn't have much interest. It smacked of something that was so well traveled," he said. "But then when I read it I thought, 'This is a story no one knows about tied to an event everybody knows about.'"

To ensure accuracy — filmmakers wanted to nail even details like how a couple at that time held hands — numerous scholars were consulted, including Civil War historians and an expert on military justice, who ensured the Surratt courtroom scenes were shown in the most accurate light.

A tribunal will again be in the news as the Mohammed trial unfolds. But Solomon says that even as the 9/11 attacks have spawned all kinds of theories, the nuances of the Lincoln assassination remain unknown. "We often look for conspiracies where they may or may not exist," he said. "This is an actual conspiracy that most of us have never heard of."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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