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The Conspirator (1/10)
by Tony Medley
Run time 123 minutes.
OK for children.
Lots of movies you worry when
you have to leave for a few moments that you might miss something. In
director Robert Redfordís 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 Penn Wright), 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.
Frederick 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 ďmilitary commissionĒ and not a jury of her peers.
Redford makes it clear that in the movie the military commission was
acting on Stantonís orders to find Surratt guilty and that the trial was
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 thereís 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, itís
unlikely that our military commissions are as Nazi-like as Redford makes
Thereís 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 doesnít 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 itís 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, itís just
as reasonable to believe that she was guilty as it is to believe that
she was an innocent victim. In fact, itís more reasonable to believe in
her guilt. But Redford stacks the deck here, giving the prosecution
virtually nothing and having Wright play on the audienceís 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. I barely made it out alive.