Extra! Extra! Movie Gets Papers All Wrong!

Published:May 2, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

The stomach flu will do strange things to you. In my case, it convinced me to watch The Conspirator (2010), a terrible film about the trial of Mary Surratt, the woman who was hanged for her part in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. There she is above, on the left, viewed by a young boy. (Who is that kid?) Anyway, one thing that struck me about the movie is how stubbornly modern it was for a historical drama. There was nothing about its star, James McAvoy, or the words out of pretty much anybody’s mouth, that suggested the nineteenth century. (One character even quotes modern statistics for the number of soldiers killed in the war!) Perhaps all this is because the film is meant to be seen as a post-9/11 parable, but if that’s the case, why not just rid yourself of all the silly costumes, as Vanya on 42nd Street so brilliantly did, and have the courage of your acting and your script? No need to answer that, actually.

I’m getting off track. My point is that of a piece with this anachronistic approach to such an important historical event were the newspaper front pages used to tell us that Lincoln was dead. Here are some examples from the movie:

Notice the banner headlines: those didn’t exist in 1865. Notice the engraving of Lincoln: those did not appear in newspapers (or very, very rarely) in 1865. Notice the all-cap abbreviation for Illinois (IL): that didn’t exist until 1963. (And even now it’s meant to be used for mailing addresses, not headlines.) Here is what the top of the front page of the New York Times, from April 16, 1865, actually looked like:

Oh, and notice how the first of those Conspirator pages is marked the Janesville Weekly Gazette. I actually found such a paper, in Wisconsin. Here is what the top of its front page from April 27, 1865, looked like:

No larger point here except that for a historical drama like this to work, you have to have a certain amount of trust in the filmmakers, and these kinds of visuals, apart from being giant cliches, erode that trust.

UPDATE: The AHA asks, Can you make a film about the Civil War without mentioning slavery? Somebody else (mistakenly) asserts, “The production values of The Conspirator are certainly first rate.” And the Justice Integrity Project wrangles over the film’s revisionist (or is it out of date?) take on the Surratt trial.