Four score and seven years ago, Robert Redford mattered. As an actor, as a filmmaker, as a founder of a film festival and independent film movement. It’s not that Redford is suddenly irrelevant or talentless, it’s just that he’s sort of faded into the limelight. He’s not the same shiny smiliing wiseass we loved from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Sting. He’s not even the same craggy faced rugged fella from Sneakers. It’s just kind of surprising that he’s still making movies, considering that over the past decade, he’s fired off only two, and both of those incredibly forgettable. I’m not sure what prompted Redford to suddenly direct The Conspirator, a film that seems apropos of nothing. Granted, it’s a very solid dramatization of the trial of Mary Surratt, one of the conspirators brought up on charges for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, William Henry Seward, and attempted assassination of Andrew Johnson. It’s an ably-acted, fairly boilerplate courtroom drama — sort of a ye olde John Grisham — with a baffling eclectic cast and a constant cataract of hazy soft focus lighting. The Conspirator wouldn’t be out of place on the History Channel — well, you know, between “Ice Road Truckers” and “Something Else Nazis Blew Things Up With” — or as an elaborate PBS telethon draw. It’s a solid average effort, not something you need to rush out and immediately see, but inoffensive and enjoyable enough that you wouldn’t flip past it if you can’t find anything else to watch. It is the cinematic equivalent of a Law & Order marathon on TBS — predictable and watchable.
We open on a civil war battlefield as Captain Frederick Aiken (no relation to Clay, played by James McAvoy) lays wounded in a trench, trying to staunch the wound of his fellow soldier Baker (Justin Long) and distract him with a joke. The medics come and save them both. Then the movie can begin. It’s a civil war period piece, resplendent with bustles, bonnets, and bristling beards for all the cast. A Union war veteran, Aiken comes home to return to practicing law under Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). At a fete for the welcomed troops, he meets with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), and gets a few moments to set up the romance with his beau Sarah Weston (Alexis Bleidel) before the assassinations take place. Intercut between the scenes of the party, we watch the conspirators make their attacks — John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) drops a copper in Lincoln’s five dollar and leaps to the stage while Lewis Payne (Norman Reedus) savagely breaks in on the convalescing Seward and stabs the holy hell out of him before fleeing. The action continues as we watch Stanton pull an Al Haig and the rest of the soldier track down, capture and murder the conspirators. Among them are the famous Samuel Mudd, the doctor who patched up Booth’s leg, and of course, Mary Surratt (a very austere looking Robin Wright Penn), the owner of the boarding house where the conspirators hatched their conspiracy and mother to John Surratt (Johnny Simmons, Young Neil of Scott Pilgrim), one of the plotters to murder Lincoln, Seward, and veep Andrew Johnson.
You can see where this is going? History kind of plays a royal fuck you as to the drama of the situation, as any trivia buff can tell you the fate of Mary Surratt. Senator Johnson insists that war vet Aiken defend Mary Surratt, since everyone deserves defense counsel and justice. Against the wishes of his friends, and his woman, and those cabinet members who were so proud of him, he defends her, even though he hates her at first but then that emphatic sense of duty that overtakes all the best dramatic lawyers gets into his bones, and he wants her to go free. Congress, through the machinations of almost got killed now prez Andrew Johnson and Secretary of War Stanton, declares a war tribunal on the conspirators, and they are filtered through an astonishing kangaroo court that would make the warden of Gitmo blush. The tribunal is run by nine generals, at the foremost General Hunter (Colm Meaney), who along with most everyone else wants to sew everything up, noose it, neck it and drop it into a deep dark hole of moving on past the nation’s sorrow. Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) is the prosecuting attorney, in a case where Aiken isn’t allowed a list of the witness for the prosecution, the evidence, to talk to his client, or any of the other things all of us who went to the University of Television Procedurals would recognize as law.
Aiken does a great job working ye olde courtroom as they pipe through an assortment of shady witnesses and he attempts to fight against the unjust proceedings. They bring in a drunk tavern owner (Stephen Root) who claims Mary Surratt was planning a party and gunfire for the night of the execution. Aiken is trying to pin everything on John Surratt, who had fled, and so he has to use Surratt’s daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), to testify against her brother. Redford, with the script by
Grisham Dick Wolf James Solomon, does a interesting job of eeking as much indignant outrage as is possible from a story we know the end to. And the film’s textual coda is particularly sneerworthy. I guess it’s sort of coasting on the tailwinds of the recent slough of “Can You Believe How The Government Fucks Us?” trend in cinema. The film is thoughtful, if not intriguing or thought-provoking. It’s kind of like walking through The Smithsonian and seeing a few facts you didn’t know.
With such a strange amalgam of a cast, the performances are all solid and entertaining, even from the characters I didn’t even list. Other than the soft focus, there’s nothing particularly there to make you think, “Ah, a Redford opus.” It’s got that stock-footage procedural feel to it of anything with cops, initials and a colon in the title. That’s not to diminish the quality, I mean, I watch the everloving fuck out of Law and Order whenever I come across it, no matter which iteration or cast it happens to be. It’s not quite comfort food, it’s more like mall court food. You know it’s not going to be great, but it reliably gets your belly full. Such is the case with The Conspirator. But considering the shit that’s currently clogging the arteries of the cinema at the moment, and with the future looking continually bleak, it’s a pretty decent option until summer rolls around.