Sunday, April 17, 2011

Just Saw The Conspirator (2011)

I have a few concerns about parallels to Gitmo that make me wonder if they were forced or inaccurate--after all, Robert Redford directed it.  I need to spend some time checking these parallels for historical accuracy--perhaps I will write a movie review for PajamasMedia based on my research.  But from the standpoint of filmmaking, The Conspirator is topnotch.  Fine, often understated performances; beautiful sets and attention to period detail; a powerful story; even a script that leaves the historical ambiguity in place that while we can be pretty sure that Mary Surratt received an unfair trial, there is some serious uncertainty whether she was actually innocent or not.  The film even has a mildly serious acknowledgment that in wartime, justice sometimes takes a backseat to the survival of a nation, no matter how ugly the results.

UPDATE: Was not able to sell it, so...

The Conspirator

I teach history.  I write history books.  As a result, my reaction when I see a drama about historical events usually ranges somewhere between rage and disappointment.  I understand the need to modify events and speeches for dramatic effect, or to combine several characters in the interests of keeping a storyline moving.  I have written one screenplay concerning an historical set of events, and I know that rigidity can destroy a story.

That said, there are films that really impress me.  Glory (1989), for example, takes a few minor liberties with history, but leaves alone the important facts and ideas about Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the first black Union regiment during the Civil War.  At the same time, it is about as perfect as any film can be: exciting; thoughtful; emotionally stirring; patriotic; beautifully filmed and edited, with a cast of powerful actors.

Other films drive me crazy, because they had so much potential to be historically accurate—and chose not to be.  Mel Gibson’s The Patriot (2000) is also exciting and emotionally stirring, and also a fine example of the filmmaker’s art—although not at the same level of Glory.  What infuriated me about The Patriot was that it was clearly based on the actual events of Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion’s campaign against the British during the American Revolution—but took enormous liberties with the historical facts.

When I saw the first reviews of The Conspirator, with references to the parallels to current events, I was a bit worried.  Then I saw that Robert Redford was the director—and I was very worried.  Was this going to be a hit piece on President Bush?  The film is about the people tried and executed for their part in the Booth conspiracy, which involved more than simply the assassination of President Lincoln.  The government tried the defendants not in civilian courts, but by military commission.  Shades of Guatanamo!  

I admit I went into the film with considerable apprehensions about this.  There are some parts that immediately smacked of intentional manipulation—but they turned out to be true.  The hoods?  Yes, they were real, and not just for transportation, as with the prisoners on the way to Gitmo, but 24 hours a day.  These hoods ordered by Secretary of War Stanton were far more uncomfortable than anything handed done at Gitmo.  A couple of sessions of waterboarding would be considered a less severe torture than these.

Similarly, the hysteria of the nation after Lincoln’s assassination was very real—in many respects, much more severe than anything that happened after 9/11.  Of course, one difference is that the loss of life in the Civil War was vastly more severe.  I do not want to spoil the film for you, so I will not give a point-by-point examination, but on every point where I found myself wondering, “Is Redford trying to score political points with this comparison?” the historical evidence is completely solid.

I was also pleased that while The Conspirator certainly takes a liberal point of view concerning the question of military trials, it does at least acknowledge that the government’s position was not necessarily malicious.  There were legitimate concerns, not just for national security but also for the task of rebuilding a shattered nation.  While the film does not mention it, the presidential suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was one of the great Constitutional crimes of the Lincoln Administration.  Lincoln’s view—sounding much like something that President Bush or Attorney-General Ashcroft might have said in 2002 or 2003—was that the nation itself was in peril, and it was better to violate one part of the Constitution than “the government itself go to pieces.”  Today, we can look back at such clearly unlawful steps as arresting members of the Maryland legislature to prevent Maryland’s secession, and recognize that Lincoln was operating in a crisis situation.  Lincoln justified his actions by the pursuit of a greater good, and today, liberals grudgingly admit that he was right.  How many years will it take before liberals can look back on the Bush Administration’s occasional overstepping of its authority after 9/11, and give them the same benefit of the doubt?

I am also pleased that the film avoided the cheap and easy strategy of making Mary Surratt into a pure victim.  Much like the real evidence of history, the film shows the ambiguity of the evidence.  She did not receive a fair trial—but she was probably not innocent, or at least not completely innocent.

As history, I am very pleased.  As film, I am thrilled.  Variety’s review called it “‘12 Angry Men’ with kerosene lamps.”  I would strongly disagree.  Unlike 12 Angry Men, it is not confined to a jury room, or a courtroom.  Much of the drama indeed takes place in a courtroom—but it is by no means confined to that setting.  The matte paintings, the sets, and the attention to period detail shows that the producers spent a lot of money recreating Civil War Washington in great detail.  The acting is powerful in its subtlety, with strong performances by James McAvoy, Robin Wright, and Kevin Kline.

This is a somewhat cerebral drama.  If your idea of a great film involves lots of explosions, car chases, and gunfights, you will probably want to pass.  But if you are looking for an interesting reminder that crisis often leads to difficult decisions, I can strongly recommend The Conspirator.


  1. I am not a lawyer, nor have I studied legal issues as you have, but I have never understood why so many people insist that the President cannot suspend habeas corpus "in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion".

    The Constitution does not say who may suspend habeas corpus. The placement of the restriction in Article 1 Section 9 implies that it is a power of Congress.

    But A1S9 also includes the restriction that "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law", which is a restriction on the Executive - the branch which draws money from the Treasury.

    A1S9 also requires that "a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time", which again clearly applies to the Executive, not Congress.

    Furthermore, it is not sensible to require action by Congress to suspend habeas corpus.

    Suspension was clearly intended as an emergency power. Congress was not normally in session, and to bring Congress into a special session required months. (Even in 1861, with telegraphs and railroads, when Lincoln summoned a special session after Fort Sumter, he scheduled for July 4, 80 days later.) To give a critical emergency power exclusively to a body that might not be able to exercise it for months would be... as I said, not sensible.

  2. Except that Congress has war powers in general, Rich.