Monday, April 18, 2011

The Conspirator

Robert Redford’s latest film “The Conspirator” opened this past weekend. The reviews are generally positive, with many critics reflecting on the timeliness of the subject.

The movie itself is about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the role played by a boarding house proprietor named Mary Surratt. Mrs. Surratt was accused of being an active conspirator in the Lincoln plot, and was put on trial in a military court along with three other alleged conspirators.

The movie was released on April 15, 2011 to coincide with the 146th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death. The tragedy of that time was the American Civil War, which began near Charleston, South Carolina on April 12, 1861 when the Confederacy bombarded Fort Sumter at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. The war ended four years later on April 9, 1965 with General Robert E. Lee surrendering at Appomattox, Virginia. Less than a week later, President Lincoln was dead.

While there was obviously great drama at this time in our nation’s history, Mr. Redford chose to focus on the circumstances of Mrs. Surratt. Why is this?

Patrick McDonald from thinks he knows:

The aim of Robert Redford in the construction of The Conspirator is obviously to parallel the circumstances of the last 10 years, where the fear of terrorism has led to perpetual war and the suspension of highly regarded constitutional beliefs in exchange for an illusion of safety. The debate about that legality in the film consists of the same concerns that takes [sic] regarding the Guantanamo Bay detention camps and the politicians who believe that war powers means the suspension of fair trials, privacy and yes, freedom.
And so we see the relevance. Our Constitution prohibits unlawful imprisonment in the United States except in cases of rebellion or invasion, when “the public safety may require it.”

As you can imagine, political leaders like to suspend habeas corpus and declare the public safety in jeopardy whenever it helps them navigate difficult situations. Why get involved in messy civilian trials when you can use military prisons and tribunals?

Suspensions have occurred during the Civil War and World War II. More recently, our leaders have wrestled with the question of whether this constitutional right applies to non-citizens, specifically those persons designated as enemy combatants.

But back to Mary. She is portrayed as a sympathetic figure…
She is a woman.
She is a practicing Catholic.
She is struggling with problems within her family unit.

The people arrayed against her are of a different stripe. Those who testify against her appear to be less than truthful. A military officer is duplicitous in the representations he makes “off the record” versus those under oath. The leader of the military tribunal clearly shows antagonism toward the legal counsel representing Mrs. Surratt. The whole process is “a rush to judgment.”

In this context, Mr. Redford contrives for us a quiet display of the theme that “Republicans are shredding the Constitution.” The people “wearing the black hats” are associated with a Republican administration, and they come across as shallow and opportunistic. While the film doesn’t resolve the guilt or innocence of Mrs. Surratt, we leave the theater knowing that we don’t like the people who adjudicated her.

And this brings me to the purpose of this post. People in America are divided on the issue of the Constitution.

Republicans believe they know what our Constitution says. Others believe they know what the Constitution means. To these latter individuals, the Constitution is a document of charity, compassion and forgiveness. It speaks of human yearning, and has but a glancing influence on the rule of law.

These two different perspectives end up dividing us by political philosophy. We are either Founders or Progressives.

Who is right? Robert Redford weighs in with his cinematic effort, showing how Republicans are those who are shredding the Constitution. He lets us know that habeas corpus must be preserved at all costs. The constitutional exceptions noted in Article One, Section 9, Paragraph 2, can be ignored.

Does it seem that I am projecting a little of my own bias onto this gifted actor and director?

Probably, but then why not take the occasional liberty with things like the juxtaposition of the title and photo of a blog post?

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