Robert Redford is an activist and that’s all well and good, but he’s awful at balancing his political viewpoints with storytelling. His previous film, Lions for Lambs, was a pedantic, simpleminded bore. With his latest film, The Conspirator, Redford at least has the courtesy to provide a story, but it may as well be prefaced with “Hi, I’m Robert Redford. I’m going to give you an allegory for how we treat military detainees. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back to my other job as worn leather.” Despite solid performances and the promise of a complex narrative, Redford undermines his message of “Justice for All” by making the criminal a victim.
It’s the close of the Civil War, the nation is celebrating, and John Wilkes Booth had to go and ruin it all by assassinating Lincoln. The perpetrators were quickly rounded up and subjected to a military tribunal. Among the accused was Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) whose boarding house served as the headquarters for the assassins (attempts were also made on the lives of the Vice President and Secretary of State). Surratt’s son John (Johnny Simmons) was close to Booth but managed to escape to Canada. The nation was hungry for revenge and decided to try poor, sweet, good-Christian Mrs. Surratt.
But The Conspirator is not her story. It’s a legal drama which means the protagonist is her reluctant attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). Like most Union men, Aiken fought in the war and he’s unhappy at the prospect of having to defend Surratt, but he’s forced to do so after his mentor Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) leaves the case. However, Aiken begins to understand that Surratt is being railroaded through the tribunal and the only thing that will save her is if she gives up the location of her son. But saintly Mrs. Surratt will protect her boy and place her faith God and I am so bored.
Here’s the issue Redford wants to convey: “Everyone should be treated equally in the eyes of the law. What we’re doing to military detainees is unconstitutional and our system of justice should be based on evidence and defendants being judged by a jury of their peers.” It’s an obvious point that one could simply blog about or discuss in a middle school civics class, but Redford is clearly enamored of the subject. However, he absolutely destroys his point by making the defendant so pathetic. In The Conspirator, Mary Surratt clearly doesn’t deserve to die for simply running a boarding house and not giving up the location of her son. But any negative aspect of her character that would make the audience think “This is a terrible woman and she should hang” is washed away. So ultimately the message isn’t “Everyone should be treated equally under the law.” The message is “All good people should be treated equally under the law.” I wholeheartedly agree: Innocent people shouldn’t be hung to death. Thanks, Mr. Redford.
The saving grace of The Conspirator is the performances. Everyone does the best work they can with the material they’re given, but that material is painfully weak. Every group of characters can be summarized in a single sentence. For Aiken’s friends, it’s “How can you defend that women?” For Mrs. Surratt’s enemies, it’s “We don’t care if she’s innocent! Harumph!” It’s a complex world reduced to black and white with McAvoy and Wright struggling to bring some shading to the main characters. Not only do they have to struggle against a weak script, but uneven cinematography that fluctuates between looking like a real movie and the hazy, candle-lit visuals familiar to viewers of the History Channel.
The Conspirator is better than Lions for Lambs, but so are most punches to the face. Robert Redford can’t seem to stop himself from preaching to the audience in the most lazy, condescending fashion. But if he’s going to use filmmaking as a vehicle to preach obvious points, he would do well not to undermine his point with such blatant hypocrisy.