There’s something appropriate, if not prophetic, in the fact that the Confederate cemetery in Richmond is called Hollywood. From the inception of American cinema, the Civil War has provided narrative fodder and an inexhaustible supply of action, emotion and heightened drama, leading to a perfect marriage of history and myth.
From the Lost Cause revisionism (and noxious racism) of “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” to Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator,” opening Friday, movies have shaped and in some cases blatantly distorted what we know about the conflict, defining its contours and meaning as much by the stories they don’t tell as the stories they do. By way of consensus at the box office, film exerts a singular ability to create public memory — and, just as often, collective amnesia.
Both impulses play out in “The Conspirator,” a handsome, somber production that illuminates one of the most fascinating and overlooked aspects of the Abraham Lincoln assassination — which, as fate would have it, occurred 146 years ago this week. Although the crime is commonly attributed to the actor John Wilkes Booth, it was a much larger plot, which entailed not just killing Lincoln but also his secretary of state and vice president. The secular Passion Play that unfolds with familiar fatalism in the opening scenes of “The Conspirator” was, Redford reminds audiences in that same sequence, in reality an attempted coup.