Even the most dedicated cinephile may have blinked last spring and missed the brief visit of Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” to the suburban multiplex. The film had a shelf life shorter than a Ding Dong in Chris Christie’s pantry. No, I take back that stupid joke. Not because I would care about the hyper-hyped Christie even if he were running, but because one of our two obese presidents has been first-rate—Grover Cleveland, the Buffalo anti-imperialist—and the other, William Howard Taft, at least sired a statesman, his son Robert.
“The Conspirator,” recently released on DVD, deserves an audience, especially in these dark days of never-ending wars and “See something, Say something” government-stoked paranoia. The film’s subject is the trial of Mary Surratt, the Maryland-born Catholic widow at whose Washington, D.C. boardinghouse bunked assorted members of the conspiracy responsible for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. (John Wilkes Booth was a visitor, not a boarder.) “She kept the nest that hatched the egg,” said President Andrew Johnson, whose failure to grant clemency to Mrs. Surratt was a low point of that drunken Tennessee tailor’s rocky tenure at the top.
(Andrew Johnson has his own strange cinematic footnote. “Tennessee Johnson,” made in 1943, presents its title character as Lincoln’s worthy successor who runs afoul of vindictive Radical Republicans. Directed by William Dieterle, whose masterpiece is the dreamlike “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” “Tennessee Johnson” is notable for the campaign of repression waged against it: Vincent Price, Zero Mostel, and Ben Hecht, among others, petitioned the Office of War Information to destroy the film in the interest of national unity. Manny Farber in The New Republic got it right: “Censorship is a disgrace, whether done by the Hays office and pressure groups, or by liberals and the OWI.” Funny, isn’t it, how “Tennessee Johnson” is absent from narratives of Hollywood censorship?)
Mrs. Surratt was railroaded by a military tribunal for aiding and abetting Lincoln’s murder. Although her son John was almost certainly implicated in the crime, Mary probably had no knowledge of the plot. “If I had two lives to give, I’d give one gladly to save Mrs. Surratt,” said Booth associate Lewis Payne as he awaited the gallows. “She knew nothing about the conspiracy at all, and is an innocent woman.” Mary’s son, her priest, and even Union General Benjamin Butler would later proclaim her innocence. But by then the deed had been done. And hangmen don’t do contrition.
“The Conspirator,” scripted by James Solomon, is refreshingly cant-free. The luminous Robin Wright plays Mary as a woman of adamantine faith. “I am a Southerner, a Catholic, and a devoted mother above all else,” she tells her lawyer. Three strikes and you’re out, lady, one might think, but no, this film is respectful of Mrs. Surratt’s loyalties. (Hostile reviewers, however, pointed out that Mrs. Surratt, even if innocent of any role in the assassination, was a Confederate sympathizer and presumably deserved the noose. The sanctimonious are merciless.)
Maryland Sen. Reverdy Johnson, the Lincoln pallbearer who was Mrs. Surratt’s first attorney, is the film’s voice of reason and constitutional fealty—“a military trial of civilians is an atrocity”—in a time of panic. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, played by an unrecognizable Kevin Kline, is the Dick Cheney-ish villain of the piece. It’s nice to see Stanton, a thoroughgoing bastard, get his. I expect he and Booth will meet Cheney soon enough in the sulfurous precincts of the afterworld.
The foreshadowing of post-9/11 America is deliberate but not clumsy. “The world has changed,” the sinister Secretary Stanton tells Senator Johnson. “Abandoning the Constitution is not the answer,” replies Johnson, sounding like, well, Ron Paul.
“The Conspirator” sits lonely in the almost empty sleeve of movies about spectacular violations of the Bill of Rights. So cheers for Robert Redford. As an actor, Redford projected an aloofness unusual in movie stars; he was emphatically not the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with. Round here folks still talk about how unfriendly he was while filming “The Natural” (1984), in which the former University of Colorado pitcher made a convincing ballplayer in an unconvincing film.
Redford is an admirer of Edward Abbey, the late great anarchist voice of the desert Southwest. Making “The Conspirator” demonstrated Redford’s indifference to the hall monitors of social-studies textbook history. Now how about filming Abbey’s The Fool’s Progress or The Monkey Wrench Gang? Cactus Ed makes Mary Surratt look like Betsy Ross.