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"The Conspirator" | a film review by Gary Chew

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

As Cicero tells us, "In times of war, the law is silent." That's why the first female American to be hanged by the U.S. government was so dispatched on July 7, 1865.

Mary Surratt was tried by a military commission, not a jury of her peers. That's what has brought Robert Redford, it would seem, to direct a relevant, thought-provoking film surrounding the aftermath of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln just days following the conclusion of the American Civil War.

Redford and his screenwriter, James D. Solomon (with Gregory Bernstein), have adjusted the focus of serious filmgoers back on the assassination of President Lincoln at a time when the U.S., over recent years, has been locked in heated debate concerning military tribunals and civilian justice.

Robin Wright

Robin Wright as Mary Surratt

The plight of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), as to whether she was part of the conspiracy to murder Mr. Lincoln or not, makes an interesting juxtaposition for us here, nearly a century and a half since her trial and execution.

To put it simplistically, I felt a small group of Yankee dudes had gathered at a local, downtown cinema to screen a film on American history that cleverly compels them to root for a good Christian woman of Rebel persuasion who is being put upon by a nasty, old Yankee government after the assassination of a president most every American, today (Republican, Democrat or Independent), reveres. Moreover: directed by one of Hollywood's most "notoriously" liberal filmmaker/actors. Talk about juxtapositioning.

Parallels are evident between "The Conspirator" and policies invoked by the Bush II Administration since 9/11. Specifically: although, Mrs. Surratt was a native-born American from Maryland, politically in sympathy with the Confederacy, why did she stand before a military commission and be denied due process in a civilian court?

I guess you could say, that's where Cicero comes in. The Roman's quote is given in the film by Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline). Sec'y Stanton's managerial skills aided the North's victory over the South. With backup from the freshly sworn President Andrew Johnson, Stanton allows no chance that Mary Surratt be in a position for acquittal by reasonable doubt.

Mary Surratt

The real Mary Surratt

Even today, as one watches a replay of the PBS miniseries, "The Civil War," it's clear there IS doubt that Mrs. Surratt knew her son and other Rebel malcontents were conspiring to murder Lincoln. The narrator of the Ken Burns series, David McCullough, uses the phrase "may have been" when saying whether or not she was culpable.

When you think about it, Robert Redford's "Conspirator" treads perilously close to a message laid out in much starker detail by Stanley Kubrick in his film, "Paths of Glory," starring Kirk Douglas.

In a nutshell, Kubrick's classic scorns the notion that public examples must be made of the guilty, even if some of them might be innocent.

The 14th Amendment came a bit too late for Mary Surratt, but it didn't keep her lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), from trying to shift the trial to civilian jurisdiction.

The script brings the story down closer to ordinary people with Aiken coaxing Anna Surratt (Evan Rachel Wood), the daughter of Mary Surratt to give greater support to her mother. Aiken's personal relationship with Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel), is added to the narrative. Ms. Weston was the young woman awaiting the return of her Yankee war hero officer from the battlefield. She is quite taken aback when Aiken agrees to take the Surratt case.

Reverdy Johnson, a U.S. Senator from Maryland (Tom Wilkinson) is the legal eagle and politician who prods young Aiken to defend Mary Surratt.

James McAvoy and Tom Wilkinson

James McAvoy and Tom Wilkinson

A significant sidebar should be inserted here: Reverdy Johnson, although against slavery, was counsel to the slave-owner defendant in the infamous Dred Scott decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857.

After quoting Cicero in the film, it might be appropriate to quote someone more contemporary from American literary history that pertains to the mindset of Reverdy Johnson, who was, also, the 21st Attorney General of the United States of America.

The more recent remark comes from a woman much less conservative than General Johnson was. The American playwright, Lillian Hellman, of McCarthy Era fame, knew a thing or two about being questioned by a panel of the powerful. Hellman once wrote, "Since when do you have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?"

That's precisely why Frederick Aiken took Mary Surratt's case, even though he'd been dodging Rebel bullets longer than he really wanted to, for he felt American civilians should have the right to a jury of their peers, even if a particular citizen might be implicated in conspiring to kill the very president he'd been fighting for since the war began.

In arguing for Mrs. Surratt, Frederick Aiken declares that, "If John Wilkes Booth had been tried in this manner, it, too, would've still been wrong."

After witnessing his client hang by the neck until she was dead, Mr. Aiken left the field of military law and became a journalist. He was the first editor of the Washington Post.

Some say that such is the glue that holds us---the U.S.---together.

"The Conspirator" official site. Opens wide April 15.

See Yahoo Movies-Tulsa for theaters and times.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net,
Facebook.com/justin.playfair and Twitter.com/orwellingly.

Copyright © 2011, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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