Here’s most of what you need to know about The Conspirator, the new Robert Redford movie about Mary Surratt, one of the conspirators in the plot led by John Wilkes Booth to murder Abraham Lincoln: It’s a Gitmo parable.
The movie gets going on the night of Lincoln’s shooting at Ford’s Theater. The opening scenes are fascinating for their depiction of April 14, 1865–the attack on Lincoln, the failed assassination of Secretary of State William Seward, and the botched attempt on the life of Vice President Andrew Johnson. As a Lincoln buff–and especially as a Lincoln assassination buff–I was eager to watch this part of the tale unfold. The individual scenes are well done and ring true to history, but the story they’re supposed to illuminate isn’t well presented. Sadly, I’m afraid that moviegoers who aren’t already familiar with several key details from that night will feel lost. The movie expects you to do your homework before you go to the theater. Bad idea.
The point of the film isn’t to portray these moments. They’re just the backdrop to the main event: the trial of Mary Surratt. Most scholars agree that she was involved in the Booth plot against Lincoln. Yet the script is ambiguous on this point (despite the film’s unambiguous title). That’s not a terrible choice because it heightens the drama of what’s to come. There are also some legitimate uncertainties about what Surratt knew and didn’t know. The movie’s central objective, however, is to portray Surratt’s military trial as ridiculously unfair. In these scenes, history becomes caricature as the hero of the film pushes for a civilian trial–you know, just like today’s enlightened liberals push for civilian trials for terrorists. On this matter, The Conspirator is relentlessly preachy. The movie poses as an effort to make history come alive. In its desperation to score a 21st-century political point, it falls flat.