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.