Happy 146th Anniversary of Lincoln's Assassination! Here's a Dull Movie About It 


The Conspirator
Directed by Robert Redford

Mary Surratt was arrested for conspiracy and sentenced to death in a military tribunal after Lincoln's assassination. She was not allowed to speak in her own defense. Parallels between Surratt and post-9/11 tribunals are not so much possible as insisted upon in The Conspirator, Robert Redford's formulaic dramatization of the case, which disappoints by avoiding the episode's moral murkiness.

Surratt (Robin Wright, colorless) was suspected as John Wilkes Booth met other conspirators at her boardinghouse, including, perhaps, her runaway son. She never puts up much of a fight, but is this because she's guilty? Unwilling to risk incriminating her son, even in confidence to her lawyer (James McAvoy)? As a confederate sympathist, was she pleased with Lincoln's death? This role could've been as lacerating as Elizabeth Proctor, but there's no sense into who this woman was or what drove her.

Such gaps could stem from lacunas in the factual record, but historical integrity should've been sacrificed for dramatic purposes. We're so focused on whether she had prior knowledge of the assassination that the real injustice of how her rights were stripped away seems more of a sideshow.

There are other weaknesses. Justin Long and Evan Rachel Wood lack the necessary gravitas for their supporting roles, while Tom Wilkinson and Kevin Kline are underused as men on opposing sides of a constitutional divide. And though it's refreshing to see a period piece that isn't all sweeping helicopter shots, the cinematography suggests a video in a museum exhibit rather than one of Hollywood's most elegant stylists.

What's missing most is complexity. Balancing liberty and security remain hotly contested, and since Lincoln's murder added to what was already one of our most vulnerable moments, those tasked with stopping another potential insurrection can perhaps be understood for erring on the side they chose. By painting them one-dimensionally as eager to throw Surratt to the wolves, Redford offers answers that are simple only in hindsight.

April 15


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