Thursday, April 14, 2011

A history lesson from Robert Redford

The Conspirator tells an interesting story, but it's awfully earnest -- and that's the trouble.
What do you do when a movie tackles an interesting subject, boasts a prestigious cast, delivers a message with which you generally agree, and you still give it your enthusiastic endorsement?

Here's what I do: I say that you may want to see Robert Redford's new movie The Conspirator, but you probably shouldn't expect to be blown away. Redford's movie has its virtues, but it's also overly earnest and dry, a bit of civics lesson on film.

I'm betting that not many Americans know the story of Mary Surratt, a 42-year-old woman who was hanged in 1865 for being part of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. Surratt, a staunch Catholic and proud Southerner, owned a Washington, D.C., boarding house where the conspirators plotted the president's murder. She claimed innocence.

At one point, Surratt was offered leniency on condition that she disclose the whereabouts of her youngest son, John. John later admitted to helping hatch a plot to kidnap Lincoln, but insisted that he had no part in the president's assassination. John Surratt remained in hiding during his mother's trial; he ultimately was tried and acquitted.

In telling Surratt's story, Redford takes a step forward from his last directorial outing, 2007's Lions For Lambs. Preachy and obvious, Lions made a head-on attempt to deal with the consequences of the war in Afghanistan. Steeped in period atmosphere, The Conspirator proves more subtle, although it's impossible not to see parallels between the issues raised by the Surratt trial and those surrounding military proceedings at Guantanamo.

Rather than providing us with a definitive answer about Surratt's guilt, Redford uses the movie to defend a principle: A nation of laws - especially during times of heated public sentiment -- must offer fair trials even to those whose guilt seems beyond question. Justice must be served; the craving for vengeance, resisted.

Working from a script by James D. Solomon, Redford focuses on Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), the lawyer who's assigned to defend Surratt before a military tribunal.

At first Aiken wants no part of the Surratt case. Like just about everyone else in Washington, he has little doubt about her guilt. As the story develops, Aiken begins to understand that, at minimum, Surratt deserves a hearing, something the military seems disinclined to provide.

Redford surrounds McAvoy with a powerful cast. Robin Wright portrays Surratt as a strong and devoted mother: She won't betray her son to save he own life. Surratt makes no bones about her loyalty to the Confederacy, but insists she knew nothing about what the plotters were discussing when they gathered in her boarding house.

Tom Wilkinson plays Reverdy Johnson, the Maryland lawyer who involved Aiken in Surratt's defense; Danny Huston portrays Joseph Holt, the prosecuting attorney; and Kevin Kline appears as Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War.

According to the movie, Stanton wanted a quick verdict; he was interested in satisfying the public hunger for vengeance that followed the assassination. Kline's Stanton is a severe, unforgiving man who thinks the demands of the nation, as he sees them, take precedence over individual rights.

Evan Rachel Wood terrific as Veda Pierce in HBO's recent version of Mildred Pierce, brings emotional urgency to a movie that sometimes seems to be striking courtroom-drama poses. She plays Surratt's daughter.

Credit Redford & company for attempting to illuminate a little-known chapter of American history, and giving the movie a persuasive period look, but The Conspirator can feel restricted by its courtroom setting and by what seems a carefully worked-out agenda, the need to remind us that emergency situations shouldn't obliterate our freedoms. At times, the movie seems as committed to making points as it is to telling a story.

Still, there's no point damning Redford's effort, even if it ultimately emerges as a musty addition to the canon of socially conscious movies that don't so much raise questions as answer them.

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