The Conspirator’s Problem

Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) led from her prison cellOn the evening of Day 3 of the American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting in Boston last week, the AHA pulled a first and offered a screening of a not-yet-released film. I’m a film/movie buff, so it wasn’t too difficult for a couple of grad school friends to convince me to sign up to see The Conspirator, a forthcoming film from the American Film Company.

As of Thursday of the conference, all I knew was that it had something to do with the Lincoln assassination. This is rare for me, the person who usually has a long list of movies-to-see-in-theatre. I like trailers and I like to read synopses. I pore over Entertainment Weekly’s annual summer and winter movie lists. In short: I like movies.

And of course, I’m a huge fan of women’s history. So when I found out at the conference that The Conspirator was ostensibly about Mary Surratt, the lone woman implicated in the plot to assassinate Lincoln (and the first woman to receive the death penalty from the U.S. government – sorry if that’s a plot spoiler) – well, I was pretty excited.

The film had an all-star cast: Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, James McAvoy, and others. Robert Redford directs it.

The promotional postcard included a partial image of Surratt. I presumed, then, that if this were a movie about Mary Surratt, it would be a movie about Mary Surratt.

This, however, is wrong.

The Conspirator is technically a film about Surratt, but it is more accurately a film about Surratt’s lawyer, Frederick A. Aiken. I should have known something was not right when I saw James McAvoy’s name listed first among the starring cast. I really should have known when the film opened with a battlefield scene between two wounded male soldiers.

I will grant that The Conspirator is an enjoyable movie. It would be more enjoyable, from my point of view, if Surratt were the actual subject of the film, rather than serving as an object within Aiken’s perspective. It is a historically accurate film (although I’d venture some possible caveats on some scenes involving male-female interaction). It is a film that most Civil War buffs will admire enormously because it includes every important Civil War trope and cliché (aside, ironically, from slavery – although that’s not exactly present in every Civil War film anyway).

The problem with The Conspirator is that we, as viewers, are given a woman’s story cast through a man’s eyes and experience. It’s as if Surratt herself was deemed somehow not good enough to tell her own story. Focusing on Aiken and on men in general averts our gaze from Surratt. By the end of the film, we come no closer to understanding why Surratt was so threatening. The Conspirator is a movie about men when it should be a movie about women.

I find this troubling and frustrating. It’s also nothing new. Last August, Entertainment Weekly author Mark Harris examined what’s known as the “Bechdel Test” – a baseline for establishing women’s roles in movies. Not only is the Bechdel Test a poor standard, Harris notes, but more than that he argues that if it had been applied to 2009’s best picture nominees for the Oscars, 50% of the nominees would have had problems.  (While you’re at it, go check out Why Family Films are So Sexist and learn about how there aren’t enough women working as directors or writers or any other number of behind-the-scenes roles in Hollywood).

During the film, I scribbled madly all over the brief survey we were given to hand back in. After the film, we got to chat with a panel of several of the historians who consulted on the project (including Kate Clifford Larson, who authored a book on Surratt), as well as one producer and screenwriter Jim Solomon.

The discussion was enlightening, particularly because Solomon was very straightforward in explaining that he’d simply come at this story through the lawyer because that was who interested him and who he’d identified with when he’d started the project in his late 20s. As a writer, I understand this. He also later explained that with Aiken, he could see the character development arc – which he never quite found with Surratt.

That explanation aside, Solomon also noted (when asked) that no one in the production company, nor the consultants, had ever questioned why the story of Surratt was framed by Aiken. His explanation was that they simply must have found it to be an engaging story (or they wouldn’t have made it).

This is what bothers me most, I think. As an author, I get Solomon’s own explanation. I dislike it, but I understand where he’s coming from. (Personally, I think saying you can’t find Surratt’s arc is a bit of a cop-out, but I’ll give Solomon the benefit of the doubt: he was an amazingly nice and patient man who put up with me and my colleagues and our questions quite well.)

I’m more bothered, then, by the fact that none of the movie makers – and none of the historians –ever found it worthwhile to question why you would tell a woman’s story through a man’s eyes. I should not be surprised – and to some degree, I’m not – but I’m very incensed by the oversight. This might have been a very intriguing, very unique approach to the Civil War. It’s not often we get female-centric Civil War films – but that doesn’t mean such films do poorly (Gone with the Wind, anyone?)

Ironically, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Robert Redford had this to say:

“When I first read the script, I was taken aback by the fact that the Lincoln assassination was only a catalyst for this whole other story,” says Redford. “And it’s a story that no one has really told before.”

Ironic, because in the end they missed the story anyway: Surratt’s account still waits to be told on the silver screen the way it should. So sure, go see The Conspirator when it comes out. I wish it well, and I wish the American Film Company well.

But if they ever want to write a real movie about interesting women in American history, they should think about giving me a call. I’ve got a whole list we could work with – and I could even help them figure out how to tell these stories without relying on the crutch of men.


7 thoughts on “The Conspirator’s Problem

  1. I agree with your view on the gender skew, although Surratt herself could be problematic: do you depict her as guilty, or not? If they had shown her willingly participating in the assassination plot, this would have been a very different film… The only way to retain the ambiguity about her guilt (which I took to be their intention) was to keep her as the object, not the subject, of the plot.
    Just wrote about this film in a post of mine today too:

  2. I haven’t seen the film yet, but from what I understand from the film company’s website and Redford’s statements, this isn’t a film about any of the conspirators’ stories or motivations or even the assassination itself. Redford has said it’s about the mood of the country post-civil war, post-assassination and the rush to judge and dispense with the alleged conspirators (guilty or not) as quickly as possible. Aiken is a stand-in for the audience who journeys from viewing Surratt as guilty to probably innocent…a journey Redford wants the audience to take as well. Of course, it helps Redford’s point if Surratt is viewed as innocent whether she was or not…and I have no opinion on that one way or the other. I’m looking forward to the film.

    • I also heard the producer and screenwriter bring in the Aiken-as-stand-in-for-audience thing, but if they meant this to not be about the conspirators’ stories or motivations or the assassination itself, I don’t think they succeed. I say that because if that were the case then they would focus on ALL of the conspirators rather than Surratt alone.

      • My sense is that they focused on Surratt because there was some ambiguity or ambivalence about her guilt–or was at one time–more so than the other conspirators. From what I understand, that ambiguity is necessary for Redford to make his point.

      • I still maintain that the film is problematic, but definitely encourage you to see it and see what you think. I think Redford could have made a much better film than he did by *actually* telling Surratt’s story and could have made those same points in the process.

  3. Pingback: What We’re Reading: January 20, 2011 Edition - American Historical Association

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