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Nudge-Nudge, Wink-Wink: Robert Redford's The Conspirator

Robert Redford’s movie about the Lincoln assassination, The Conspirator, is one of those nudge-nudge movies. It calls to mind the old Monty Python sketch about the annoying guy on the bench — “nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say-no-more.”

Why doesn’t the guy played by Eric Idle in the Python sketch just come out and say what’s on his mind? (As it turns out, his character wants to know what sex is like.) And why can’t Robert Redford just come out and make the movie he so dearly wants to make — about how the prison at Guantanamo is a national disgrace and how al-Qaeda detainees should be given full Constitutional rights?

The allegory at the heart of The Conspirator is all it has going for it, and it’s the only reason it got made. Shorn of its War on Terror meaning, it’s just a dull, speechy courtroom drama in which every character is more or less stamped “hero,” “villain,” or “victim.”

James McAvoy plays a Union Civil War veteran named Frederick Aiken who is, against his will, assigned the unpleasant task of defending one Mary Surratt, who owns the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and other conspirators — including, possibly, her own son John, who is missing during an ongoing manhunt — planned the murders of Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. (Seward survived a stabbing; Johnson was not attacked).

Mary Surratt is charged along with several clearly guilty and unrepentant conspirators, but her role in the affair is murky. Redford presents her as being the designated witch for hunt, her only morally questionable act being to maintain loyalty to her son John, whose whereabouts she seemingly knows but refuses to divulge.

Aiken, who at first is disgusted by his client but comes to believe that everyone is entitled to a vigorous defense at trial, gradually comes around to the standard 12 Angry Men view that the conventional wisdom is wrong and that his client (played by Robin Wright) is simply an innocent victim of highly politicized hysteria. In case you miss the point, every page of the script groans with stodgy declarations like, “Let us not betray our better judgment and partake in an inquisition” and “You’re so blind with hatred, Mr. Aiken, you can’t even see the truth.” That Mary is being tried in a military, not civilian court, is a nudge-nudge meant to make us think of those poor souls in Guantanamo — the same ones even President Obama now supports trying in military proceedings. This argument is therefore over, and Redford’s film is now embarrassingly too late. The country has moved on.

The Constitution, we are told, was drafted “precisely for times like this.” Those who believe the Constitution should be taken equally seriously at all times and in all places — say, in its restrictions on federal power — may be left cold. When Mary stages a hunger strike, an evil prosecutor (Danny Huston) dismisses her suffering as “a touch of the woman’s curse.” Redford is stuck in the Seventies: he thinks throwing in a line of boorish sexism is the surest way to applause. He doesn’t realize that viewers are sophisticated enough to understand when they’re being fed red meat.

The chief villain lurking in the shadows is Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, played with creepy wickedness by Kevin Kline. He advocates shortcuts to justice: “They assassinated our president and someone must be held accountable — the people want that,” he says. Everything that comes out of Stanton’s mouth is a nudge-nudge meant to make left-wing audiences think, “This man was just like Dick Cheney!”

The story of Mary Surratt is not without interest and perhaps she wasn’t guilty, though there was circumstantial evidence against her. But how seriously should we take the charge that Stanton strung up everyone in sight? John Surratt, for instance, was later found and tried in the assassination, but though he admitted participating with Booth in an earlier, failed plot to kidnap Lincoln, he walked free of all charges due to a hung jury.

Redford, 74, whose last effort, Lions for Lambs, was if anything even more didactic and lifeless than The Conspirator, is a telling example of what happens when a liberal filmmaker (even if, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, he won’t admit to his ideology in public) turns his back on the demands of drama and takes up permanent residence on the soapbox. It’s been nearly 20 years since Redford’s last good film, Quiz Show, and despite his impressive debut, Ordinary People, which won him an Oscar in 1980 and remains by far his best work, it now appears that Redford must go down in history as a filmmaker of the second rank.