Lots of movies you worry when you have to leave for a few moments that you might miss something. In director Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, you can leave for 122 minutes and not miss much, if anything. This is not only slow, it is amateurishly accomplished. The sets are cartoonish, the script poorly crafted and stilted, the acting often clumsy and the directing loose and self-indulgent. Worse, it is agonizingly interminable.
Mary Surratt (Robin Wright, the actress formerly known as Robin Wright Penn), the subject of the film, owned a boarding house where her son, John (Johnny Simmons), conspired with John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) and the other conspirators involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the attempts on other members of his Administration. She was tried and convicted of treason, as everybody knows, or should know.
Fredrick Aiken (James McAvoy) is drafted by Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), her first counsel, to defend Mary but — according to Redford — the deck is stacked by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), who decrees that Mary is to be tried by a “military commission” and not a jury of her peers. Redford makes it clear that in the movie the military commission was acting on Stanton’s orders to find Surratt guilty and that the trial was a sham.
And therein lies one of the rubs. This seems to be just an inept metaphor by Redford for the military commissions that are (or should be) trying Islamic killers today. But there’s a big difference: Surratt was an American citizen and a civilian. The Islamic killers are combatants from the battlefield who are not citizens, and therefore not entitled to Constitutional protections — like trial by jury in a civilian court. Further, it’s unlikely that our military commissions are as Nazi-like as Redford makes this one.
There’s long been a controversy about whether Surratt was a knowledgeable conspirator or perfectly innocent. It tries common sense to think that all these guys could meet at her boarding house with her son so many times without her knowing that something was going on. Further, the entire Surratt family was well known as Confederate sympathizers. Son John was a courier for the Confederate Secret Service, moving messages, cash, and contraband back and forth across enemy lines. But Redford leaves that out of the movie. Another thing Redford doesn’t include in the movie is the evidence produced at her trial that on April 11, just three days before the assassination, Mary Surratt rented a carriage and drove to the Surratt tavern (that her husband had built in the 1850s) in Surrattsville, Md (now known as Clinton). She said she made the trip to collect a debt owed her by a former neighbor. But her tenant, John Lloyd, said Surratt told him to get the “shooting irons” (rifles two of the conspirators had hidden at the Surratt Tavern) ready to be picked up. If Redford wanted to make a truly educational movie without a point of view, he would have included this damning evidence so that his audience could make up its own mind.
So it’s reasonable to conclude that she might have had guilty knowledge of the plot. If so, she had the power to have prevented the most horrible assassination in American history. Had Lincoln not died that day in April, our entire history would undoubtedly have been different and much better. Ergo, it’s just as reasonable to believe that she was guilty as it is to believe that she was an innocent victim. In fact, it’s more reasonable to believe in her guilt. But Redford stacks the deck here, giving the prosecution virtually nothing and having Wright play on the audience’s sympathy throughout the film. If Surratt did know that something was going on, she is one of the great villains of American history for not reporting it. But nobody could walk out of this movie with that point of view.
Surratt’s story deserves better than this biased, maladroit film that’s rife with life-threatening boredom.