Baseball, Hotdogs, Apple Pie, and ... the Rule of Law? A review of The Conspirator

Baseball, Hotdogs, Apple Pie, and … the Rule of Law? A review of The Conspirator

I remember when my email inbox began filling with the messages: “Ground Zero Mosque”, “You Can Build Your Mosque at Ground Zero When We Can Build Our Synagogue at Mecca,” and “Building a Mosque at Ground Zero Is Like Building a Memorial to Hitler at Auschwitz.” My first impression was that a mosque was actually being planned for the site of the old World Trade Center towers, but of course, that wasn’t the case. The site for the proposed community center/mosque was about two blocks away. Still it was close enough to strike a nerve in war-weary, post-9/11 America.

At first I was sympathetic. Angry New Yorkers felt that building a mosque there and then was an insult to the friends and families of those who died in the 9/11 attacks. More than this, they feared the center would become a rallying point for any Muslims who saw the World Trade Center tragedy not as a treacherous, cowardly attack on innocent civilians, but as high-and-mighty America finally getting a taste of what it deserves. I shared these patriotic fears, but there was one problem.

The law was on their side. The property had been purchased, the site plan submitted in accordance with city zoning statues, and the project approved in a legal and orderly fashion.

Of course millions of Americans simply didn’t care about the legal rights of New York Muslims. What significance could they possibly hold when weighed against the outrage of their fellow citizens?

It’s an old problem.

On April 14, 1865– five days after Lee surrendered to Grant– John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. It was arguably the worst possible epitaph to the Civil War, dooming the south to reconstruction and angering millions of war-weary northerners. In the hysteria following the assassination, many suspects were arrested and interrogated, and just 17 days after the assassination, 8 people were brought to trial: 7 men and one woman, Mary Surratt.

Director Robert Redford’s film The Conspirator examines Mary Surratt’s trial. In so doing he hopes to stir our emotions regarding the abuse of what was once considered a sacred principle, but of late has fallen on hard times: the rule of law.

Robin Wright’s portrayal of Mary Surratt is in my opinion brilliantly acted, but far too severe to make her a sympathetic figure.  She is in the film as she was in life a southerner, openly sympathetic to the Confederate cause. The issue of her guilt—Did she actually know of and participate in the plot to kill the president?—is never clearly resolved in the film.

What is made clear is that her guilt or innocence was never really the issue at trial. The war and the assassination had overtaxed our nation’s ability to endure, so someone had to pay. Mary Surratt was  called upon to pay, if not for her own sins, at least for the sins of others. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, chillingly portrayed by Kevin Kline, is the bad guy in Redford’s tale. He justified it like this to Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), Mrs. Surratt’s lawyer:  “Mary Surratt was a party to the most grievous crime in our history. Necessity demands that she be given a swift, sure, and harsh sentence.”

In pursuit of this noble goal the deck was stacked against Mrs. Surratt from the beginning. Instead of the trail before a jury of her peers guaranteed by the Constitution, she was judged by a military tribunal. She was not even allowed to testify on her own behalf. Others who dared do so were openly intimidated and subverted by government prosecutors. When the tribunal initially found her guilty, but sentenced her to a life sentence, pressure was successfully brought to bear on them to change the sentence to death by hanging. And a last-minute writ from a civilian judge, staying her execution, and granting her a constitutional trial by jury was set aside by the President of the United States himself.

Of course, the argument can be made, so what? The nation had endured an outrage. Justice was needed. And given her traitorous sentiments, her close relationship with many who were guilty, and the nagging uncertainty of how much she actually knew, who’s to say that justice isn’t what she got? If some corners were cut along the way, is that really a big deal?

It depends, obviously, on how important law is.

Once civil laws were seen as reflections of larger principles. Just as the laws of science were rooted in nature and therefore had to be reckoned with, so, too, moral principles were thought to be part of the fabric of the world God had made and should be revered and taught to following generations. Of course, there were differences of opinion on what those principles were even back in the day.

Now civil laws are most often seen as rules societies pragmatically adopt and replace as matters of convenience. They’re a matter of what works, and when they cease to work or become inconvenient, we’re free to discard them or even ignore them. It’s a rather cynical view, one that rarely stirs the heart or the conscience on legal matters.

Still I salute Robert Redford and his film for trying to do just that.  The American exceptionalism that was such a big part of my youth—we think we’re special  and don’t make the same mistakes other countries do—has fallen on hard times for good reasons.( May it never make a comeback!) But American cynicism, especially when applied to the rule of law, is an even poorer substitute. The belief that there is one set of rules that apply equally to all our citizens, regardless of race, sex, or social standing, has never been as true in practice as we like to pretend it is. But each time we abandon the pursuit of it, the American Experiment becomes a little less worthwhile.

The Conspirator is the first production of The American Film Company. According to their website the AFC is “founded on the belief that real life is often more compelling than fiction, [and so] produces feature films about incredible, true stories from America’s past. Central to the company’s filmmaking will be prominent historians, assuring that each production remains true to the history from which it is drawn.”  Their first effort admirably achieved these lofty goals. May their future work be as thoughtful and even more successful.