Discussion Questions for The Conspirator

  1. Discuss your first impressions of the film. What does watching The Conspirator leave you thinking about
  2. The last American president to be shot was Ronald Reagan in 1981. What do you recall of the media coverage surrounding the event? (SNL famously parodied media coverage of the Reagan shooting in a skit entitled “Buckwheat Shot,” starring Eddie Murphy.) How did it compare to the press coverage of the Lincoln assassination as shown in The Conspirator? What effect in each instance did media coverage produce in the population at large?
  3. Why did the government decide to try Mrs. Surratt in a military court? In your opinion was their rationale sound?
  4. How did the fact that Mrs. Surratt was a woman influence public perception of her? The process of the trial? The verdict?
  5. Do you think Mrs. Surratt was a participant in the plot to kill Lincoln? Defend your answer.
  6. Frederick Aiken, Mrs. Surratt’s lawyer, undergoes a transformation during the film, from her angry opponent to her passionate supporter. What drives this change in him?
  7. In one of the film’s most important dialogues, Aiken encourages Mrs. Surratt to incriminate her son John in order to save herself. She refuses, saying, “Have you ever cared for something greater than yourself?” To which he replies, “I’ve spent the last four years fighting for something greater than myself.” Then we are the same,” she says. Discuss this exchange.
  8. Aiken accused Secretary of War Edwin Stanton of seeking vengeance in Mrs. Surratt’s trial, not justice.  What’s the difference between vengeance and justice?
  9. In 1866 the US Supreme Court ruled that constitutional rights may be suspended during times of war, stating “these  [the Bill of Rights], in truth, are all peace provisions of the Constitution and, like all other conventional and legislative laws and enactments, are silent amidst arms, and when the safety of the people becomes the supreme law.” Was this ruling, in your opinion, correct?
  10. If you’ve seen the film Unthinkable (2010), compare it to The Conspirator. In each film the rights of an American citizen are suspended because of a perceived threat to “the greater good”. In Mrs. Surratt’s case, “The Union” is at stake, at least in the opinion of Secretary Stanton. In Unthinkable the threat is nuclear terrorism.  Should the rule of law be upheld in each case, despite the possible consequences? If not, why not?
  11. If you were allowed the honor of dining and talking with director Robert Redford after viewing his film, what questions would you like to discuss with him about his film?
  12. Critics are divided in their assessments of The Conspirator. The Boston Globe called it “an important film… that has had the life beaten out of it by Robert Redford, a man who should know better.”  The New York Times accused it of “Dixie sentimentality.” According to Rex Reed “No matter where your political leanings lie, the great thing about The Conspirator is that Mr. Redford is wise enough to let the audience decide what the parallels are. See it, enjoy a ripping good yarn and learn something.” What did you think of it? Is it well done? Is it entertaining?
  13. Why in your opinion was this film made now?

Note: Allow me to recommend a study guide The American Film Company has made available online for The Conspirator at  www.crimemuseum.org/documents/ConspiratorCurriculum.pdf