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THE CONSPIRATOR

Slipping Into The Past
McAvoy's own historical research gave him insight into the issues raised by The Conspirator. "I was pleased that James has such a knack for and interest in history. I think it made his character more accessible to him,” says Redford. McAvoy even spent time researching Aiken, but was disappointed to find little available. "There isn't a picture of the guy in existence and there is barely a paragraph's worth of information about him,” says McAvoy. Fortunately, when it came to answering questions about the characters or events, the filmmaker and actors were able to tap into the expertise of The American Film Company's consulting historians. .

McAvoy learnedthat after four years fighting for the Union cause, "Aiken was shot twice and saw friends die in battle.” Finally, the long war was over, McAvoy explains, and "other people were trying to dismantle what he had fought for right in front of his eyes.” Like Lincoln, concludes McAvoy, Aiken came to believe "there would be no purpose in having a unified America if northerners continued to hold a grudge.”

Those close to Aiken don't see it that way. We initially meet Alexis Bledel's character, Sarah, as she joins the jubilant party celebrating the end of the war. "She's hoping to pick up where she and Frederick left off and rekindle their relationship,” explains Bledel. But the assassination that night brings everything to an immediate halt. Initially surprised to see Aiken take the case, she becomes concerned, disappointed and even angry. "Sarah just can't believe that he's doing such a thing,” says Bledel, "She tries to understand because she's very much in love with him, but it throws her completely. It's so foreign to the loyalties they've had their entire lives.

Robin Wright plays the strong, enigmatic Mary Surratt, whose actual involvement in the conspiracy has long been debated, mainly because she stoically maintained her innocence while saying nothing that might aid her defense. Her strong Catholic faith, ability to withstand great suffering and steadfast resoluteness makes her seem martyr-like. Wright says, "Mary Surratt is a mother, a widow, a Catholic, a Confederate, who is, I think, wrongly accused of being an accomplice in some way.” Her actions, says Wright, represent the ultimate sacrifice. "She's a victim by her own choice. It's the choices that you make as a mother that transcend all questions of guilt or innocence.”

Standing helplessly by, caught between her loyalty to her mother and her brother, is Anna Surratt, played by Evan Rachel Wood who felt remotely connected to the story because her father, "a bit of a conspiracy buff,” kept a replica of Booth's gun in her living room when she was growing up. "Despite the fact that we all know how it's going to end, there are times in the film when you feel there's hope and think Mary could be saved. But even though you want her to live and feel for her family, you know the tribunal had their minds made up before the trial even started,” Wood says.

The driving force behind the tribunal is, of course, Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, played by Kevin Kline. Because the Civil War extended through Lincoln's entire presidency, he came to rely heavily on Stanton. The two spent untold hours working together and became devoted friends. For Stanton, losing Lincoln at the war's end would have been an unimaginable blow. "It was a personal loss and it was a national catastrophe,” says Kline. "The expectations of reuniting the country were so high and everything seemed possible, then the rug was pulled out from under the whole country and Stanton. I sense he felt it was his job to hold it together at any cost.”

Aggressive and confrontational, Stanton took control of the situation the moment he heard Lincoln had been shot, even excluding the first lady from the president's death vigil. No stone would have been left unturned in his efforts to seek justice for the murder of his friend. But, was it justice? Kline argues that Stanton, "wanted justice, but more than anything he wanted it over. He wanted every conspirator buried, forgotten, erased from the national consciousness, so that's what he tried to do.”

Over the course of the trial, Aiken and Surratt gain respect and develop care and concern for one another. In the beginning, says Wright, "he's a Unionist, she's a Confederate and there's an innate hatred they both have for the other's beliefs. When they get past that, they find humanity in one another.” Aiken is enraged by the privations and suffering she is made to endure in the squalid conditions of the Arsenal Prison. At the same time, he finds himself impotent in court. Against a system designed to secure a conviction, Aiken can do nothing to alter her fate.

"Aiken left law soon after this case,” says McAvoy, "I took that to mean this case really did kill something inside him. The fact that he went into journalism where he could report on the things he couldn't live with, I found quite interesting.” Aiken died young, having been the first city editor of The Washington Post.

The way McAvoy sees Aiken, "he is America and the battle for his conscience and integrity represents the question of what direction America is going to choose. America was founded on purpose,” he says, "with desire and conviction and passion to guarantee all citizens civil liberties. So, will they stick with those founding principles or succumb to revenge?”

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