Liz Smith: Robert Redford’s ‘The Conspirator’ Debuts in New York

Director Robert Redford with his "Conspirator" stars: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, and Kevin Kline

And more from our Liz: James McAvoy and stunning Robin Wright elevate Redford’s history lesson about assassins, terror, and due process of law

“THE WHOLE history of the world is summed up in the fact that, when nations are strong, they are not always just — and when they wish to be just, they are not always strong.” So said Winston Churchill.

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HISTORY and nations — strong, just, unjust (take your pick) — is the theme of Robert Redford’s new movie “The Conspirator,” which premiered here in Manhattan Monday night.

This is the true tale of Mary Surratt, the only woman arrested, tried and convicted in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Seven men also stood trial. (The assassin himself, John Wilkes Booth was killed during a cross country pursuit.) Chroniclers of the time have long debated whether Mary, whose sympathies lay with the South, was merely a pawn — a more or less innocent victim of the real plotters, one of whom was her own son, John Surratt. He had conveniently fled the county, leaving his dear mother to take the rap. There was a considerable amount of evidence against her, not all of it presented here, but Mary’s guilt or innocence isn’t quite the point of Redford’s take.

The issue in “The Conspirator” is the manner in which Mary was tried — by a military tribunal, rather than in civil court. Mary’s own lawyer, Frederick Aiken, loathes what she stands for, and is reluctant to take her case. But in time he comes to see that guilty or not, Mary Surratt has the cards stacked against her from the get-go. He learns to fight for his client’s rights even if, to the end, he is not certain of the extent of her involvement.

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SO, THAT’s the plot. It’s true, and it could make a thrilling film. Alas, despite Mr. Redford’s fine intentions and some superior acting by Robin Wright and James McAvoy especially, “The Conspirator” rises only occasionally to the level of a good episode of the courtroom drama “Law & Order.” In hoop-skirts.

Something is off through most of the film. It is darkly photographed — everything misty, and with clichéd shafts of light attempting to emphasize mood. Most scenes are backlit. It looks like nothing more than an amateurish TV movie, straining for evocative big-screen quality. The script is iffy, despite the fact that some of it — Frederick Aiken’s final defense of his client — is taken directly from the trial transcript.

Things seem to happen too slowly or too quickly. And yet by some miracle, the movie eventually catches fire. The final fifteen minutes — although we’ve all seen the prisoner-waiting-for-her-fate scenario — are compelling; the audience is hushed, clenched with tension and audible with shock at the final terrible denouement.

The success of “The Conspirator” — and I consider it a success despite my reservations — comes from a true knowledge of and love of history. Some things involve you whether you want them to or not. And then there is the acting. Mr. McAvoy, who has been so good in “Atonement” and “The Last King of Scotland,” is splendid as Frederick Aiken, torn between his duty as a lawyer and his love for his assassinated president. His American accent is superb. I’ve heard McAvoy speak in his native Scottish tones and truly he almost needed to be subtitled!

But above all is Robin Wright as the accused. She is a towering presence. She dominates without even speaking. She has a strong face and though stripped of makeup, Miss Wright is still powerfully attractive. She looks exactly like one of those sepia-tinted Daguerreotype photos in which everybody was instructed to stand absolutely still.

It is as if Miss Wright is performing in an entirely different movie — a much better movie. But the integrity of her work lifts the entire thing. She is stunning. (The relationship between McAvoy and Wright is reminiscent of Gregory Peck and Alida Valli in Alfred Hitchock‘s “The Paradine Case” — a lawyer defending a woman who both fascinates and repulses him.)

There are other good turns by Evan Rachel Wood, Kevin Kline, the great Tom Wilkinson. And then there is Justin Long, best known as a young man who appears in comedies or horror movies. He is not untalented, but inescapably contemporary. That he is obliged to wear a great big mustache only serves to highlight his youth and very much identify him as Justin Long.

“The Conspirator” will look considerably better on TV, and even on the big screen it has merit. The story is as real and current as events happening today. In fact those events are happening today — or don’t you think Mr. Redford keeps up with what’s happened at Gitmo when push came to shove over the matter of military vs. civilian trials for terrorists.

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AFTER THE premiere, everybody hustled over to the Royalton Hotel to drink and eat and mingle. It seemed to be a heavily vegetarian buffet, although somebody took pity on the carnivores and tossed some prosciutto in amongst the broiled asparagus and eggplant, cheese balls and pasta. (The screening and party were sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and Piaget.)

Mr. Redford was there, oozing charm. Looking handsome. He’d won my heart by simply getting up at the start of the film — which began late, of course — and saying, basically. “Thank you for coming!” Producers and directors usually babble for endless minutes in such situations.

Redford was gracious and pleasantly surprised by anybody who really knew the story. “Oh, you know the history?” he said delightedly to one fellow who engaged him in a long conversation about Mrs. Surratt. Redford also addressed the slow film’s build, “It’s like a vortex, it sucks you in, yes?” Okay.

But as marvelous as it was to see one of my favorites, the legendary Mr. R., the night’s big thrill was the presence of Mr. Redford’s former, famous press rep, the fabulous queen of PMK (before it became PMK-HBH) Lois Smith. Lois looks sensational, and so vital that when asked if she might ever return to the hurly burly of press repping, she said, “Oh, no. Well. Maybe. Sure, why not?” This woman represented everybody — from Marilyn Monroe to Cher. She is the class act of all time. (She is being feted by New York pals this week.)

Lois was accompanied by another great lady, tennis immortal Billie Jean King. Billie looked terrif, also. When told this, she said, “No, no, I’m fat! I had these operations on my knees and they kept me from exercising!” Told again she wasn’t anywhere near “fat,” she said, “Well, it’s better than being too thin. Once I lost fifty pounds. That wasn’t pretty at all.” When talk turned to the great HBO documentary about her, “Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer,” she said, “Thanks, and everybody on that did such great work. Really, they are responsible. The same team did a documentary about apes. I think the apes came off better than I did!”

Yeah, well — when an ape can do what Miss Billie Jean King did at Wimbledon, we’ll talk.


One Response so far.

  1. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Everything has its place. Including tribunals. But I doubt anyone could explain that to anyone who doesn’t understand it to begin with. Which I suspect includes Robert Redford. Everyone has forrgotten Nuremberg. Which served not only to punish those who committed crimes against humanity but set forth principles of war if you will which sadly we have forgotten as well. 

    As for Mary Surratt and the others they probably should have been tried, as citizens, in civil court. I doubt she and the others would have fared any better. But its hard to be sympathetic towards her. Which the film apparently wants you to.  Or to be sympatheic to those held at Gitmo. I do not believe in “renditon” and I do not believe in torture but then those who committed both have also not been charged despite the violation of interntational law.

    Imagine Nuremberg held in a civil court in New York. Or  in Berlin. With the anti-Semitism that prevailed at the tme despite the horror of the Holocaust. And the tribunal was about the Holocaust. Which a civil trial might not have been. That may have been why the assassins were tried by a tribunal. To avoid the prevailing political attitudes of the time. 

    Robert Redford is good with the political statement.  I suspect not so good this time.