Robert Redford is a good man. He is earnest and decent and his heart is in the right place. He is also an essential figure in cinema as he has single-handedly probably done more for cinema—with the Sundance Festival and Sundance channel and other film-related ventures—than anyone else in the history of this art. The late Henri Langlois, one of the founders of the Paris Cinémathèque and its head for many years, also left a major legacy but he was part of an institution and responsible for the preservation of cinema history whereas Redford has done it all by himself, giving wings to independent cinema and encouraging countless talents that would have had no way to express themselves without his support. But as an actor and a director, he does have annoying tics, particularly two. I would call the first the all-the-president’s-men syndrome, meaning that he has never quite stopped being Bob Woodward. He’s still on the side of right rather than righteous (and can I sympathize with that!) but this square-jawed attitude can pall when taken to extremes, as it does in the newest film he directs, “The Conspirator.” The second tic is what I would call the a-river-runs-through-it lighting syndrome, meaning that everything is glimmering, glittering, dust motes dance in shafts of sunlight, and figures left in darkness are outlined by brilliant back lighting. Viewing “The Conspirator” can be truly irritating at times, making one long for sharp, crisp images.
The story is that of the military trial of one of the people arrested after the Lincoln assassination of April 1865, Mary Surratt. She ended up becoming the first woman executed in this country despite some evidence that she may not have been as much involved in the conspiracy as charged. In showing the bias of the military tribunal, Redford seems to draw unfair parallels to Bush-era all-out attacks on civil liberties and some of his depiction of the treatment of the hooded and shackled prisoners remind us of the abuse at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. How Redford tells the story is his privilege but his heavy-handedness does a disservice to a history that was strong enough to stand on its own without having to convey a political credo. The acting is remarkable throughout. Of the two major characters, Robin Wright’s Mary Surratt is dignified and stoic, though with some inconsistencies, but it’s McAvoy who owns the film. He plays Aiken, the Union war hero who becomes the accused woman’s lawyer in a judicial proceeding where her fate seems predetermined. The actor is probably more likable than the character he portrays but his performance is far more subtle and layered than in his bland roles in “Last King of Scotland” or “Atonement.” All in all, “The Conspirator” is a highly enjoyable experience, an epic reminding us once again of the terrible shock it was, in a country torn by the ending Civil War, to lose to an assassin’s bullet one of its most extraordinary Presidents. That arbitrary decisions were made lest mayhem follow was unfortunate but possibly inevitable.