Robert Redford’s The Conspirator

Robin Wright and James McAvoy in "The Conspirator"

Robert Redford really fumbles the ball with The Conspirator, his unnuanced, one-sided account of the trial of Mary Surratt, alleged participant in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. While watching the film we get the feeling that Redford shifted into neutral and coasted for this one, committing many of the same errors for which he condemns the prosecution – cherry picking evidence, accepting compromised testimony as fact – all to convince us that Surratt was wrongly convicted and executed for a crime her son really committed. The movie is a lackluster, uninspired failure at just about every level. It fails to tell us anything relevant about the 1860s or how Surratt’s trial has anything to tell us about today. It fails as a parable about the thin line between justice and retribution. It fails as a courtroom drama. It fails as a piece of ensemble acting. And, finally, it fails as a movie, being neither thoughtful nor entertaining.

I grew more and more depressed as the film progressed, thinking about how every shot, each sequence, most of the choices felt musty and oppressive, like Redford, the once competent director, has failed to learn any new tricks. The Conspirator could have easily been made in 1985 and would have felt just as stale then.

Since history is my bread and butter I’ll start there. A movie that mines its story from our past should either choose an compelling story or have something relevant to say – preferably both, but at least one makes for a passable movie. What does the trial of Mary Surratt, a woman whose guilt has never been conclusively established, but still railroaded into a guilty verdict by a prejudiced military court tell us? That civilians shouldn’t be tried by the military? Hardly a revelatory position in the years after September 11. Plus Redford undercuts that message with a head-scratching tag at the end of the film that informs us that one of the conspirators did get a civilian trial, but walked when the jury couldn’t come to a decision. So…? Maybe some trials are better left to the military?

Mary Surratt may have been innocent, but then again, she may have been guilty as well. Redford stacks the evidence so we believe she was innocent, but tiptoes around the subject, never really engaging with the evidence against her (leaving out rather damning testimony that would have complicated Redford’s sainted portrait of Surratt). For Redford it is the thirst for retribution fueled her conviction. (He never considers that she may have been both guilty and railroaded, a possibility too sophisticated for a movie as simple-minded as this to explore.) Maybe it doesn’t matter if she was guilty if the message is about our capacity (or incapacity in passionate times) to try all accused criminals fairly, but Redford spends so much time making her a martyr that any larger message is bungled – if it was every intended.

Redford’s refusal or inability to take a stand, his insistence on leaving everything up for interpretation, saddles us with conflicting messages. One the one hand we’re supposed to sympathize with a woman wrongly marched off to the gallows, but on the other hand Mary admits her guilt – to a point. She admits to knowing about a plot to kidnap the president, but didn’t blow the whistle because her son would have been arrested. For this we’re supposed to cut her slack? And we’re supposed to believe she would have known about an earlier aborted kidnapping plan, but was cut out of the assassination plots? Even her defense attorney, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who supposedly spends half the movie believing her guilty, never follows this admission up with logical questions like these.

Redford’s moral outlook is stark and immutable. Everything is reduced to good versus evil, integrity versus guile, without recognizing the vast gray between them into which Mary Surratt probably fell. But Redford is only interested in outraging his audience (or, if we follow the tone of the film, mildly disconcerting us) that her trial may have been preordained. That Redford chose to depict Surratt as a frail woman who happened to be in the wrong place (or places) at the wrong time is less offensive than his treatment of the pictures’ antagonists. Danny Huston is unimaginatively cast as the prosecuting attorney for the government; he has a natural air of callous arrogance that makes him a dependable baddie, but that is exactly why he was all wrong for the part. Did the man who prosecuted Mary Surratt have to be a snake? Couldn’t he have just been a man dedicated to convicting a woman who, he believed, helped kill a president? Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is even worse. He’s one-dimensional at best, worthy of Snidely Whiplash rather than a member of the cabinet trying to keep a fragile country together after four years of civil war. Instead of taking the time to develop Stanton and grappling with his very real concerns, Redford has Kline sneer menacingly – we wait for him to wring his hands like Mr. Burns and hiss, “Excellent.” There were very real and legitimate reasons for him to push military tribunals for the accused conspirators, but Redford declines to seriously pursue them, perhaps feeling any nuance for his stacked indictment against the trial would muddy the waters and undercut his message, whatever it might have been, for an audience unfamiliar with our own history.

That leads me to a purely cinematic complaint. The movie happens to be one of the most poorly edited major motion pictures I’ve seen in a long time, though I hesitate to blame the editor, Craig McKay, who has done some solid if not spectacular work in the past. The sequence following the assassins to their respective targets is needlessly confusing. I suspected it was incomprehensible to viewers unfamiliar with the plot and a friend who saw the movie with me confirmed it to be bewildering. Most Americans (let alone foreigners) don’t know that Lincoln was not the only target that night, that Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were also targeted for assassination. Intercut with Booth’s approach of Lincoln’s box in Ford’s Theater, we see one presumed assassin drinking at the bar of Johnson’s hotel but chickens out at the last minute, and another assassin bursting into Seward’s bedroom, stabbing the man in the neck. None of this is explained, not even why Seward was in traction (he had been thrown from a horse) or that his neck brace prevented the dagger from puncturing his neck and saved his life. Only prior knowledge makes any of this intelligible. Redford could have salvaged it by some explanation after the fact, but he allows it all to pass by, leaving many in the audience wondering what the hell they just saw.

The story of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln and the trials that followed could have been fascinating and instructive, but Redford desperately wanted to make a point about military tribunals being inappropriate for civilian defendants (I guess). It’s a shame he chose one of the least interesting defendants to make that point. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland doctor who answered his door late at night to set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, was almost certainly innocent of any part in the plot. For doing his job, for setting the leg of an unknown man, something he might have done hundreds of times, he spent 20 years in prison. The only interesting thing about Mary Surratt is she happened to be a woman and as shocking as that might have been in 1865 (or 1965 for that matter), it’s hardly a fact to inspire much notice today.

Robert Redford is all but telling us he is irrelevant as a filmmaker with this one. (Has he made a decent movie since Quiz Show?) He has chosen an unfocused and dull story, reduced its moral and legal quandaries to black and white truisms and directed it with all the vigor of Eeyore. I have always enjoyed Redford as an actor and, unless he chooses better projects and tackles them with some measure of creativity, I hope he sticks with acting.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Robert Redford’s The Conspirator

  1. Since I know you Jason, there has never been an instance where I disagree with you more. Redford does NOT flub the ball at all here–he delivers the goods big time with an insightful, relevent, and fully engaging court-room drama that contains some exceptional performances. I do know this film split the critics down the middle, though I was happy to see some favorites like Zacharek and Ebert singing its praises.

    I actually saw the film a second time last night with my older cousin and a few friends (who hadn’t seen it with me the first time) and I dare say I liked it even more. It’s a **** 1/2 of 5 for me, and is presently sitting among the best films of the year. Mind you, I’m a Civil War and Abe Lincoln buff, and I may be lenient in some ways, but I was happy to see that Redford used restraint, and again worked some wonders with his long time editor Craig McKay and composer Mark Isham. This story is anything but dull and unfocused, the moral issues are not remotely reduced in the way you assert here; Redford did not want to make the point about military tribunals being inadequate, he was moreorless providing some compelling re-enactment of what history has revealed. And even if he did, I’d agree with him 100%. That system was horrific, and his liberal sentiments are shared by moi.

    I found this film completely fascinating and instructive, two qualities you strongly assert are missing.

    I am planning to have my own favorable review up at WitD on Monday morning, and I’ll state my case.

    As far as you stating your own case, whethere I agree or not, you written a wholly insightful essay. One can’t asked for more.

    • I saw your enthusiastic response over at Wonders in the Dark, so I knew I would be hearing from you about this one. I could see how someone might enjoy the movie, but one of the best of the year? You say Redford used restraint; I say his direction was routine. And, as I said in the essay, his treatment of a complex issue is unworthy of his intellect. You say the system was horrific — maybe it was, but the movie spends so much time on the prejudiced court that we never get a sense of whether Mary Surratt was innocent or guilty — or even what Redford thinks about it. Not to repeat myself too much, but she could have been both guilty and the victim of a biased court. While Redford was busy moralizing he neglected to explore this issue.

      As far as the movie being unfocused: I never got the sense that Redford knew what he wanted to do with the material. OK, biased courts are bad. I suppose we can all get behind that one, but by choosing a defendant who was probably guilty he undercuts his argument. It doesn’t help that he never has a serious dialogue about the evidence against her, highlighting the weakest and most suspect testimony, while omitting other damning testimony, like the man who heard the innkeeper who stored guns for her (I can’t remember his name) who heard him cry out that Mary Surratt had ruined him and he would hang when he heard about the assassination of Lincoln. As I said, if he wanted to make a point about an unjust system, he should have focused on someone innocent, like Dr. Samuel Mudd. Otherwise he needed to truly grapple with the ambiguity of Surratt’s case, which he doesn’t have either the patience or the ability to do.

      One question though: did you find the intercut assassination scenes confusing? And if not, was it because you already knew what was going on?

      I know we have disagreed in the past, but this may be the biggest schism. This may end up on your year end best list and it is a strong candidate for my worst. But I am always happy to hear your opinion and look forward to reading your review at WitD. I’m sure we will continue this over there.

  2. Jason, I did not find the intercutting assassination scenes confusing at all. But of course I know the particulars of what happened (the attempt on Secretary of State Seward’s life, ultimately saved by his neck brace) as I’ve taught Junior High School American history classes and have traveled this road with much interest and enthusiasm. The film passionately chronicles the agony after Lincoln’s assassination and legantly and eloquently describes how a nation’s anger allows a clear injustice to be perpetrated. I disagree that Redford moralized here at the expense of exploring the issue–history was never able to unravel the mystery behind Surrat’s complicity, and Redford’s film is meant to be a cinematically fluid re-enactment, NOT a reinvention. Redford simply relates the events (his use of lighting is extremely effective) picking up details that enforce teh general perception–i.e. the dubious suspension of habeus corpus during the Civil War, and the incredible resilience of Surrat’s lawyer. The acting was simply electrifying and accentauted viewer involvement.

    I am not saying it was the best movie of the year. I am saying right now that it sits among the Top 10. In no particular order here they are:

    Poetry
    Bal (Honey)
    Of Gods and Men
    Win Win
    Le Quattro Volte
    Jane Eyre
    Winter Before Wartime
    Uncle Boonme
    The Conspirator
    The Princess of Montpesier

    So for me, the Redford film is in distinguished company, as I attempted to illustrate here.

    But Redford’s seemingly lifeless direction here gives this film the rightful feel of formaldehyde. I am not sure what revisionist theories you feel are missing here, but Redford is really only as successful as historians have been for 150 years. He has beautifully dramatized a fascinating subplot in the Lincoln literature, and rightfully has not attempted to tarnish it with preposterous theories. For that only I give him much credit.

    We’ll talk again I’m sure here and at WitD. It’s always a pleasure.

    • I’m not sure where you got the idea I wanted “preposterous theories” included. Since we don’t really know her degree of guilt or innocence I simply wanted some balance, rather than portraying her as a martyr to hysterics.

      I disagree that Redford moralized here at the expense of exploring the issue–history was never able to unravel the mystery behind Surrat’s complicity, and Redford’s film is meant to be a cinematically fluid re-enactment, NOT a reinvention. Redford simply relates the events (his use of lighting is extremely effective) picking up details that enforce teh general perception–i.e. the dubious suspension of habeus corpus during the Civil War, and the incredible resilience of Surrat’s lawyer.

      If history was never able to unravel the mystery then it seems to me Redford ought to have acknowledged that. This movie is not a “re-enactment”; we are meant to sympathize with Surratt and be outraged over the so-called injustice perpetuated against her without ever considering why some felt the injustice necessary. We often forget, with 150 years separating us, that the Civil War could very well have torn apart the country. The suspension of habeus corpus and the declaration of military law was entirely proper, especially in a state like Maryland which had many Confederate sympathizers and its secession would have crippled Washington DC. We forget how many Northerners either openly advocated for the South or urged quick and quiet surrender (including a US Congressman from Ohio) — in essence they were or sympathized with traitors. This was a time of uncertainty and just because the generals surrendered did not mean the threat was over. That Redford ignores all this to make a point more suited to today’s absurdly titled war on terror. I’m as liberal as the next guy (well, OK, probably much more liberal), but I can’t think of a better time to exercise extraordinary federal power than the Civil War. If Mary Surratt was innocent that’s too bad (though, as I’ve said, I don’t think she was), but she knew some of what was going on, and on that alone her punishment was justified.

      Maybe I’ve just reached the marrow of my complaint: portraying Mary Surratt as an innocent victim rankles me. She was not an innocent victim. She may not have done everything they said she did, but she did enough. It would be a bit like a movie depicting Reagan as the best president we ever had.

  3. Pingback: Maurizio Roca’s “Film Noir Countdown,” W.C. Fields’ Festival, Stage Play “Angels in America Part 2,” and Tribeca Festival on Monday Morning Diary (April 25) « Wonders in the Dark

  4. Mr. Marshall:

    Your membership to the Abraham Lincoln Historical Society has hereby been invalidated by majority vote of the organization’s members. Your promise to place this film among the year’s worst has infuriated some of the faithful, who now see this as an affront to their impassioned promotional work. I have also been informed that you have completed your very last re-enactment gig.

    • Ha! That’s pretty hilarious Sam! How will I go on without ever donning another Union uniform and gnawing on hard-tack in the frigid pre-dawn hours? Without re-enactment life has no meaning. Maybe I was wrong about the movie. Do you think they would reconsider if I proclaim it the year’s best?

  5. Aye, they’d have of heart immediately!!!

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