Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Conspirator

"What About the Woman?"
"Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges"

Robert Redford's last film—Lions for Lambs—was a self-indulgent tract on the tearing down of constitutional law in times of crisis—the short-cuts in due process and individual freedoms that occur when authorities are more concerned with short term results, rather than demonstrating the strengths that underpin the foundations of the Nation under attack.  War is a very danerous time; one must guard against attacks from without and within.

He needen't have bothered.  History was already there with the same lessons, but distanced by time to demonstrate, rather than lecture and ostracize.

I was always fascinated by the Lincoln assassination and its aftermath.  As a grade-school student, I'd read books about those hysterical days following the surrender at Appomatox ending the Civil War, culminating in John Wilkes Booth's assassination of Lincoln (who, in trying to preserve the Union, had already done enough damage suspending habeas corpus during the course of the War), the man-hunt for the conspirators (whose intentions were to kidnap the President in exchange for Rebel prisoners) when Booth was killed, trapped in a burning barn, thus robbing the Nation of a cathartic trial (which probably would have been a kangaroo court anyway, to prevent the vain-glorious actor from speaking and fomenting discord in the wake of an uneasy truce).  Short-cuts were made...civil trials disbanded in favor of more stringent military tribunals (sound familiar?)...and the conspirators deprived of any rights of the accused.*

Justice was thrown out the barred windows in the sake of revenge.

The Conspirator focusses on only one of the accused, Mary Surratt (played in the film by Robin Wright Penn), mother of conspirator John Surratt (who had fled to Virginia) and owner of the boarding house where much Virginia venom was pit during the war, along with some of the conspirators' planning sessions.  Surratt was widowed, Catholic, a woman, Southern and sympathetic to its cause, all strikes against her.  But that she was the mother of John was what damned her—his association with the plotters made the location of their meetings, planned or otherwise, a foregone conclusion, and her arrest and trial was national news—maybe the government could coerce the son to surrender to save the mother.

That might have worked if the government wasn't operating in the same manner the Rebels feared it would.  The new President Johnson, under advisement from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (played by Kevin Kline, and more than making up for his performance in No Strings Attached) insured that the South would pay for Lincoln's death, just part of his crack-down on the South after the war.  No insurrection, no slight would be tolerated, and justice would move fast and frequently recklessly. 

Redford's film of the proceedings is austere, but leaves no parallel with modern times (post 9/11) unparalleled.  The facts are there, supported by generous newspaper headlines from the period bridging sequences, focussing on Surratt's defense by legal aide to Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), Frederik Aiken (James McAvoy, whose American accent is superb).  The film is front-loaded with young stars (Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel, Justin Long) as acquaintances of Aiken's, all urging him to be cautious in his precipitously uphill battle to have Surratt acquitted, lest he fall under suspicion of the government as well.  But, there are also good turns by Colm Meaney, Danny Huston, and Stephen Root, who is fast becoming one of my favorite character actors.

There is little humor in the film, save bitter irony, but given the circumstances of the case, that is hardly unexpected.  There are some subtle touches as well.  Like sunshine.  Watch how Redford—always the Nature-boy—uses the sun throughout the movie (and the lack of sun).  So many darkened, shuttered rooms reflecting that time of skulkers and hidden agendas.  One doesn't have to make to big a leap remembering that the light of day is a natural disinfectant, especially in scurrilous times.

This is the first film of The American Film Company, founded in 2008 by the Ricketts family, and even though it might seem tempting for the owners of the Chicago Cubs to re-write history, the purpose of the film-house is to present accurate portrayals of American History without the issuance of dramatic license.  It's a noble mission, but given that manifesto it guarantees that most of their films will not have a happy ending—I can't even think of a treaty that this Nation has agreed to and honored.  One hopes that it can stay in business long enough to produce some great, accurate films about the hidden corners of the past. 

The Conspirator is a Full-Price Ticket.

The documentation of the hanging. 
Mary Surratt is on the left.

* Redford makes a cogent observation by also placing all the Ford Theater actors in custody, as well—they were, after all, associates of Booth—along with with the suspected assassins.

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