Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Conspirator: History Lesson for Modern Politics

I’m a big history fan so I couldn’t resist seeing Robert Redford’s The Conspirator – about the trial of Mary Surratt, one of the accused southern conspirators who helped plan the assassination of President Lincoln and assist John Wilkes Booth's daring escape.

The movie starts out as any good historical drama should: on the battlefield, with union soldiers hunkered down in a bunker taking heavy artillery. One of those soldiers - Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) - protects his wounded buddy, Nicholas (Justin Long), while waiting for help to arrive.

I would have loved to have gotten more texture about the war, but this scene is meant for one purpose only: to establish Aiken’s bona fides as a war hero and Union loyalist. It lasts a few minutes and that’s all.

Next we’re swept forward to the evening of Lincoln’s assassination. Those who aren’t history buffs may forget that the assassination wasn’t simply the actions of a lone, disgruntled southern actor taking out his anger on the President. It was a carefully planned coup involving several players that targeted not just the President, but the Vice President and Secretary of State as well. The conspiracy is well underway and we get to see with great fanfare the re-enactment of that fateful evening, including Booth’s ill-fated leap to the stage shouting “Sic Semper Tyranus!” (thus always to tyrants) as well as that botched attempts on Vice President Jackson and Secretary of State William Steward. The evening of the assassination is fascinating, with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) taking control and closing off the city to hunt down the conspirators. This, it seems to me, is real drama.

Unfortunately, writers James Solomon and Gregory Bernstein only want to give us the barest bones of what happened, since their real interest is getting us as quickly as possible to Mary’s trial, and setting up Aiken as her reluctant defense attorney (just as we saw with the British in the HBO "John Adams" mini-series, Mary’s best defense is to have an unassailable paragon of the other side - a Union war hero - represent her, even if he’s at first loath to the task). Booth is hunted down and killed, but the other members of the plot are rounded up and tried. One of those members – John Surratt – can’t be found, so his mother (who runs the boarding house where the plot was hatched) is accused instead, and brought before a military tribunal to stand trial.

And this is where history ends and modern metaphor begins. The calamity that is the assassination of Lincoln and simultaneous Southernist attacks on the Executive Branch of US government is portrayed with all the terrorist coordination of 9/11 (even the idea of synchronizing the attacks for maximum terror seems thoroughly modern) – and the trial of Mary Surratt is clearly a stand-in for our own Guantanamo Bay and military tribunal of prisoners of war. The principals even get to argue the same great debate that we hear on our Sunday talk shows: should justice come swift and hard to rally a shocked and scared nation (Stanton), or must we hold to our values and the constitution even in the face of terrible crimes (Aiken)?

Though the trial of Surratt is factual and the situation a clear parallel, I sincerely doubt that any such discussion in 1865 took place with so modern a phraseology about constitutional values and travesties of justice. Putting the script into an archaic idiom would probably not have helped matters any, as the movie is singularly focused on examining this fine point of legal debate. Still, listening to this script, one cannot help but feel the words dovetail more with 2011 television than eighteen century dialect.

Aiken eventually turns around – no longer loath to represent a woman he believes to be guilty, he soon becomes her most ardent defender, even when it threatens to undo his reputation and end his relationship with his betrothed. This transformation is pre-ordained by the Sunday Schoolhouse nature of the plot, so little time is spent demonstrating Aiken’s change in attitude, it simply comes about when the script demands it.

What disappointed me about all this was how interesting the event itself was, and how thoroughly period the costumes (what I love about historical drama), and yet, all that is but background for what’s essentially a courtroom morality play. I would have loved to have opened up this story and really found out more about the conspiracy, the passion of defeated southerners, and the peculiarities of eighteenth century Washington. Instead we get a kind of "West Wing" in top hat and tails, and the metaphor for Guantanamo Bay and modern-day terrorist trials is all we can focus on.

Though clearly there are parallels between the plot to kill Lincoln and our own 9/11 (the movie points out all of them, even a kind of eighteenth century version of the Terrorist Alert system), I would like to point out to the writers that there are differences, as well. For one, Mary Surratt was an American citizen. For another, we had already been in a long war of brother killing brother that had resulted in the deaths of more Americans than anything since. For a third, the terrorists of today have at their disposal the ability to obliterate millions of people in the blink of an eye. In 1865, it was difficult for anyone to travel more than ten miles in a single day. I mention all these because the movie fails to really let us understand the peculiarities of its generational dilemma and let us draw the conclusions about today for ourselves.

I also mention it because, perhaps unintentionally, this movie has me sympathizing just as much with the older “hang-em-all” Secretary of War as the young man impassioned with constitutional values (perhaps you can also credit this to a gusto performance by Kline, who illustrates Stanton's hard-headed reasonableness all too well). In a way, it’s also an old man versus young man argument: young men can afford the luxury of preserving their ideals; old men have to be satisfied with merely preserving the peace. It’s no surprise if I tell you Mary Surratt’s eventual fate, but I have to say, I wasn’t even convinced by this movie that she was wronged.

Which to me speaks to the movie’s core problem. It wants to both be a historical intrigue as well as a cautionary liberal's morality tale about suspending the constitution in times of war. The lessons from one, however, aren’t as simple as the lessons from the other. I loved this movie when it surprises even itself with the messy, complicated character that history – when really understood – inevitably provides. But when it lapses into modern day liberal bromides, it’s as boring as a Sunday morning sermon.

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