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

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.