Redford jumps on soapbox: In 'Conspirator,' message trumps storytelling
"The Conspirator’’ is an important film, on an important subject, that has had the life beaten out of it by Robert Redford, a man who should know better. How is it possible that the moving force behind the Sundance Film Festival, an event ostensibly dedicated to keeping the cinema young, has made such a stodgy, ham-handed waxwork?
Because Redford and his screenwriters, James Solomon and Gregory Bernstein, have something to say, that’s why, and subtlety be damned. In 1865, the US Department of War, under secretary Edwin Stanton, put the accused assassins of President Lincoln before a military tribunal — a kangaroo court, when all was said and done — rather than giving them a civil trial. Among them was Mary Surratt, a Confederate sympathizer who ran the Washington, D.C., boarding house where the conspirators gathered and whose son, John Surratt, was among their number.
The mother maintained she knew nothing of the assassination plot, and history has never fully resolved the matter. Did she or didn’t she? “The Conspirator’’ isn’t terribly interested. The film’s concern and the true subject of its anger is the trampling received by the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and our individual liberties — a trampling we in the audience are more than welcome to connect to our present era of Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition. In truth, all you need to do the math is a shot of the accused assassins in military court with hoods over their heads — an image that is historically accurate, relevant, and shaming to both eras.
So there’s a good, ugly civics lesson here — one that becomes a tedious Afterschool Special in Redford’s hands. Obviously, this director is going to attract a stellar cast: Robin Wright as Mary Surratt; James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, the young attorney (and Union veteran) who defends her with initial reluctance and then a righteous fervor that costs him his social standing; Evan Rachel Wood as Mary’s daughter, Anna; Kevin Kline effectively loathsome as Stanton; Danny Huston as the oily prosecutor.
Every single one of them comes to grief, trapped by dialogue that alternates between dull cliche and boilerplate speechifying. The better actors hit their allotted character notes (moral outrage for McAvoy, noble martyrdom for Wright, beady-eyed expediency for Kline) and move on, while others flounder helplessly. There is no earthly reason for Justin Long to be in a Civil War movie, but here he is in all his postmodern hangdog doofishness.
More shocking for a director of Redford’s stature is just how poorly this movie has been made. The cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel smears a gauzy brown wash over everything until you feel like you’re watching through a layer of pond water. Mark Isham’s intrusive score and Craig McKay’s editing frog-march the audience dutifully from one scene to the next. These are all established craftsmen with respected work under their belts, so why does the film play like an animatronic display rather than an actual movie?
That’s easy: The importance of its message has trumped the simple art of storytelling. Redford’s best, most insightful films, “Ordinary People’’ and “A River Runs Through It,’’ have been about intrafamily conflicts, but he can’t translate that urgency to a narrative about the American family. Instead, as with 2007’s “Lions for Lambs,’’ he climbs on a soapbox. This isn’t moviemaking but badgering, and it does a disservice to everyone involved. Whether she was guilty or innocent, what happened to Mary Surratt — up to and including some last-minute obstruction of justice by the White House itself — was a national disgrace, and we’re better off knowing about it. Redford’s film commits the much lesser crime of rendering history two-dimensional.