It’s fitting, in a sense, that Robert Redford’s courtroom drama The Conspirator is gracing theaters the month that Sidney Lumet passed away. For more than a generation, Lumet was perhaps America’s greatest director of message movies — the talky civics lessons of 12 Angry Men, the corruption-in-high-places melodrama of Serpico, and of course the anti-television, anti-corporate fulminations of Network. Redford came of age as an actor when Lumet was in his prime, and now, late in life, he seems determined to carry on the director’s message-movie legacy. Instead, his work illustrates the genre’s near-terminal decline.
The Conspirator begins with a bang: the history-altering shot fired by John Wilkes Booth, whose assassination of Abraham Lincoln sets the plot’s wheels creaking into motion. We’re in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the weeks between the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse and the final capitulation of the Confederacy’s scattered armies, and a former Union officer named Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is dragooned into defending Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a boardinghouse proprietor on trial for her alleged role in plotting the assassination. (Her boardinghouse still sits in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown, as it happens, just blocks from where I saw the movie.) Aiken does so reluctantly at first, and then with mounting ardor, as it becomes clear just how ambiguous the evidence is, and how completely the government has stacked the deck.
That government is embodied by War Secretary Edwin M. Stanton (Kevin Kline), a fascinating figure here reduced to caricature. His jaw juts with Rumsfeldian certainty as he railroads Surratt to the gallows, trampling the courts and the Constitution in the process. The War on Terror analogies come fast and furious — hooded prisoners and hunger strikes, military tribunals and presidential power grabs. (That would be Pres. Andrew Johnson: In a movie that takes Lincoln’s sanctity for granted, there’s no mention of the Great Emancipator’s similarly dismissive attitude toward wartime civil liberties.)
The real story, not surprisingly, seems to have been a bit less black-and-white. Surratt’s trial was hardly a model of dispassionate justice, but neither was it conducted with quite the egregious one-sidedness that The Conspirator suggests. The circumstantial case was a bit stronger than Redford’s film allows, and the defense was far more active. (The script has Aiken call just two witnesses, for instance, where the real Aiken called 31.) Even the most generous reading of the historical record makes Surratt a deeply ambiguous figure, but Wright plays her as a courtly, steely martyr, and by the end the movie has all but fitted her for a halo: Our Lady of Habeas Corpus. (There are echoes here of an earlier era’s pro-Confederate historiography, in which the Reconstruction-era travails of white southerners were the Civil War’s chief tragedy.)
Too much complexity is death to drama, of course. But this is where the contrast with Lumet’s oeuvre seems appropriate. Think of 12 Angry Men — like The Conspirator a legal drama, and like Redford’s film a story that wears its liberal politics on its sleeve. The trial depicted in that movie was a failure but not a farce, and the audience was allowed to see why every juror but one was initially willing to convict. The story’s connection to contemporary issues — race, crime, poverty — was clear without being overly belabored. And the recalcitrant jurors standing in the way of Henry Fonda’s quest for justice (particularly Lee J. Cobb’s law-and-order conservative) were human beings, and not just strutting martinets: 12 Angry Men condescended to its antagonists, certainly, but it sympathized with them as well.
Such nuances do not intrude on Redford’s message-movie style. Here there are only white hats and black hats, crusading idealists and hissable proto-Cheneys, the noble Constitution and its paranoid enemies. The dialogue is by turns pompous and anachronistic, and the cinematography is a daguerreotype haze, all floating dust motes and burnished brass. The best that can be said of The Conspirator is that it’s an improvement on Lions for Lambs, the preachy, ludicrous War on Terror drama (complete with Tom Cruise as a neoconservative senator) that Redford inflicted on audiences three years ago. But that isn’t saying much at all.
The movie ends with a typical flourish. Just before the closing credits, we’re informed that Frederick Aiken left the law shortly after Surratt’s trial, and went on to become city editor of the Washington Post — the paper, of course, that later provided Robert Redford with one of his most famous roles, as the crusading Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men.
What Redford does not deign to tell us is why Aiken’s legal career ended: He was caught forging his law partner’s signature on checks. History does not yield so easily to moralism.