Nobody likes to be lectured to. But when it’s Robert Redford doing the lecturing, you’re more likely to listen.
Redford’s latest directorial effort, The Conspirator, is a historical drama with seriously message-y undertones. In fact, this movie couldn’t be less subtle if it ran a banner ad across the screen. The story tells of the trial of Mary Surratt, accused of conspiring to kill President Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth, our nation, whose union was already hanging by a collective thread after a divisive, bloody and lengthy civil war, needed to heal quickly. Even though Booth was found and shot dead, that didn’t seem to be enough to salve the wounds—so the government went after those whom they called conspirators and put them on trial, including a woman—Suratt— who ran the boarding house where several of Booth’s friends resided. Whether she is innocent or not doesn’t seem to matter to anyone—she is the metaphorical “patsy,” the sacrificial lamb given over for the greater good.
There are many parallels, ideologically, to Oliver Stone’s film JFK, not only in the fact that it presents a moment in our history, but in how it illustrates that, after a major event such as the assassination of a bold and beloved president, people need answers—and there need to be those held responsible—or an entire nation will fall into a collective well of sorrow from which it may not recover. In other words, somebody’s got to pay. And sometimes, in times of great desperation, somebody can turn to anybody.
But Mary Surratt is no Lee Harvey Oswald. There is no doubt about Oswald’s guilt, but, for Suratt, and for this film, it is the lack of certainty about her involvement in the plot to kill Lincoln that makes this story worth telling. How much did she know? When did she know it? And how culpable was she?
Alas, The Conspirator does not go to great lengths to answer these questions. Instead, it is more concerned with bigger issues of morality, ethics and justice. And it isn’t even the clear parallels to the JFK assassination that it is clearly commenting on—it is something much closer to home. There is no way to watch The Conspirator and not see the veiled references to 9/11 and the American government’s decisions following the tragedy. We were attacked, and somebody had to be held responsible. Guilty or not. A wide net was cast, and, the belief was, as long as it captured someone we could pin it on, it really didn’t matter who or what else went down with it. It’s for the good of the country. Or, put another way, it’s revenge.
Redford spends a lot of time on the topic of revenge, and, after a while, it really does get distracting. He has a key moment in our history here, and it’s a story that really hasn’t been told. But instead of telling us a story—with roots, motives and characters—he lectures us on government power and how it can bring about real injustices. While this is a noble sentiment, it drags the film down and you find yourself desperately longing for basic things like character and story.
Still, Redford, as would be expected, has populated his film with top-notch talent, every actor at the top of their game, from Kevin Kline to Evan Rachel Wood to Tom Wilkinson to Robin Wright to the heavenly James McAvoy, each one better than the last. McAvoy in particular shines as the lawyer representing Suratt (played with stoic strength by Wright) who is reluctant at first to represent a person he despises, but then finds both his conscience and his sense of justice ignited by what he comes to believe to be a perversion of all things that he has sworn to uphold, especially and most notably, the Constitution.
So yes, The Conspirator gets a bit preachy but, if you know going in that you’re not going to see a casual and light-hearted action flick, you just might get something out of this well-acted piece of purposeful filmmaking. Class dismissed.