Mike Cassese / Reuters
Robert Redford’s history mission
Originally published: National Post, September 15, 2010
Robert Redford is many things — an American film icon, a philanthropist, a noted supporter of independent film and environmental causes — but a history buff he is not, an admission he makes while pushing back into a plush sofa in a downtown Toronto hotel room. But the 74-year-old actor/director — whose latest film, The Conspirator, examines a nearly forgotten event from the margins of the Lincoln assassination — is very aware of the importance of looking back to help understand the present.
“History becomes a series of loops, with events tied to a certain condition,” he says.
In The Conspirator, which had it’s world premiere last Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival, Redford examines the little-known trial of a woman named Mary Surratt, who was charged, along with seven men, for conspiring in the plot to kill Lincoln.
Surratt, played in the film by Robin Wright, was a Southern woman who ran a boarding house in Washington where the Lincoln conspirators, including her son and Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, met and planned the three attacks (Lincoln, plus U.S. Secretary of State William Seward and vice-president Andrew Johnson). Despite little evidence beyond a photo of Booth and her proximity to the events, Surratt was tried for conspiracy in front of a war tribunal, thereby denied the civil trial that was her right as an American citizen.
“It was a violation of the constitution,” Redford says. “At the time it occurred, the country was so fragile [there was] tremendous confusion and great anxiety. The South did not want to join [the Union] and there was a lot of fear and this trial took place in that.”
Discussing his film on a sunny fall afternoon, on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that changed his country’s history, those loops of history, Redford notes, resonate.
“Lincoln said: A house divided can not stand. Now, in our country, the so-called house is about as divided as it can be. As a result we have a condition of confusion and misrepresentation and it has everybody in turmoil. It’s a repeat of that time. I found that pretty interesting but I didn’t have to create that. History provides that, this incredible canvas.”
The canvas of The Conspirator widens when a soldier-turned-lawyer named Frederick Aiken, played by James McAvoy, is dispatched to Surratt’s defence. A Union fighter, Aiken is forced to push aside his own feelings about the charged Confederate woman in order to fight for her right to a fair trial.
The film was financed by Joe Ricketts, “an interesting guy,” says Redford, whose new production house, American Film Company, has a mission to make “historically accurate feature films culled from America’s storied past.” This story was dug out of the history books by the film’s screenwriter, James Solomon, and after toiling on it for years, he finally got it to Redford, who spent just a few days with it before agreeing to direct it.
“One of the reasons I was drawn to this piece was being able to tell a story that hasn’t really been told yet. As Secretary of War Stanton says [in the film]: ‘I want these people buried and forgotten.’ Well, they succeeded. There was nothing said about them, no history records. They wanted the whole thing of the assassination to go away quickly because they were afraid of a resurgence in the South. So as a result [Surratt’s] story never really came out.”
Redford brought The Conspirator, also starring Kevin Kline, Danny Huston and Alexis Bledel, to this year’s TIFF without a distributor. It’s his first appearance at any film festival (other than Sundance, a filmfest that Redford runs) since he came to Toronto in 1993 to make a distribution deal for his film A River Runs Through It. Asked if the process of shopping around a film still appeals Redford, his blue eyes beam and he leans forward in his seat.
“It is exciting,” he says, grinning. “I grew up in sports, and the edge is always exciting.”
If there’s an overarching summary that can be made about Redford’s filmography — from his Oscar-winning directorial debut in 1980, Ordinary People, to the critically applauded Quiz Show — Redford says he would define it as his attempt to get “to the core of what America is.”
That’s a hefty question to answer, and not always a popular one for modern audiences, or for the industry — which Redford laments is in an “unfortunate place”. The true test of his films, he says, will be the way they stand up to history.
“I like to make films that I hope will be around, maintain their value, rather than playing to the fashion of the time. Maybe a film that may not make as big an impact at the outset but over time, it will gather some momentum, that’s a film I’m interested in.”