Justice or Revenge?

22 Nov

Two films with major Oscar potential are hitting, are about to hit, or have just hit, theaters near you. The first is J. Edgar, a biopic about the late–and wildly controversial–FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, starring Leonard DiCaprio and directed by the tireless, multiple Academy Award winner Clint Eastwood [1] ; the second is The Descendants with the always watchable George Clooney as a man who finds out that his comatose wife was cheating on him during the time leading up to her unfortunate turn. (No spoiler: this is all given away within seconds in the coming attractions trailer.) The Descendants is directed by Alexander Payne, and it’s his first feature film since the highly acclaimed Best Picture nominee Sideways in 2004. If neither of these suits your fancy, relax: it’s only November, which means there will be a stream of films positioned for Oscar consideration released between now and in the year, several of which will no doubt not reach the Dallas area until January or February 2012. Good times.

Prior to J.Edgar and The Descendants, there had only been a handful of movies that have attracted legitimate Oscar buzz. Unsurprisingly, the pickings were pretty slim among pre-Labor Day releases with the three most likely being Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and the smash adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s runaway best seller, The Help. These days, I wonder how this batch will stack up amid the year-end onslaught of highly publicized prestige pics. Malick’s film, which blew me away, overflows with its director’s vision and ambition, but it polarized the critics and earned back less than half of its production costs (at least domestically, that is). On the other hand, The Help has had a marvelous run since premiering in August: it opened in the number two spot at the weekend boxoffice, and earned back its production costs in the process. By the second week, it jumped to number one and stayed there for three more weeks. It held on to top 10 status for at least 11 weeks, and, as of this writing, is still playing in first run theaters this many months later. That The Help is still attracting moviegoers is a huge plus, but it must also hold up well in the minds of Academy voters.  Almost as astonishing in its own way as The Help‘s healthy showing is Allen’s critically hailed Midnight in Paris, which is still showing in select venues 25 weeks since it was first released, earning a none too shabby 55 million on a 17 million dollar investment. The downside is that Academy members typically recognize Allen for writing and directing though they are not as generous when it comes to Best Picture accolades. His last movie to be up for Best Picture was 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters.  There’s also hope in some quarters that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the final installment in the much beloved series, will be recognized by the Academy. Of course, under the Academy’s new rules, there’s almost no way to predict anything with any certainty in the Best Picture race because there could be anywhere from 5 to 10 Best Picture nominees instead of a fixed number of slots.

Illustration accompanying an Atlantic Monthly article about The Conspirator by Alex Hoyt.

There is one other movie that came out much earlier in the year that also deserves serious Oscar consideration, including nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Actor.  That movie is The Conspirator, Oscar winning director Robert Redford’s [2]  fact based account of a little known chapter in American history: the trial of  Mary Surratt, the first woman to be executed by the United States federal government. Convicted as a co-conspirator in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Surratt was publically hanged on July 7th, 1865. Okay, I’m not a history scholar, but I took all the required history and government classes in high school and college, and I had never even heard of Surratt until the release of this movie. Like most Americans, I was taught that an actor by the name of John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln during a production of Our American Cousin at the Ford Theatre in April, 1865.  Booth fled the scene and was eventually killed while hiding out in a barn in Virginia [3] , but I digress, so back  to Surratt’s fascinating story. Here are the bare facts: Mary Surratt was a widow who ran a boarding house in Washington D.C. Her son John was reportedly a Confederate courier–a spy, if you will–as well as Booth’s “right hand man,” and had even participated in a failed kidnapping plot prior to the president’s murder. Though never a paid guest in Surratt’s home, Booth was a “frequent” visitor. Furthermore, John Surratt suspiciously disappeared right before the assassination, thereby  incurring questions about his involvement in the crime. The theory is that the assassination of Lincoln, along with plans to kill Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson, was conceived within the confines of the Surratt home, and that Mary was complicit in its culmination. Per President Johnson: “She kept the nest that hatched the egg.”  The Conspirator posits that even if Mary Surratt had knowledge of the assassination, she should have been tried in a civilian court rather than at a military tribunal. Furthermore,  the evidence of her direct involvement was flawed, and, consequently, her execution was a huge miscarriage of justice.

I saw The Conspirator during its opening weekend back in April, and I was still thinking about it in August, so I sprang for the two disc collectible DVD.  Now, let me be perfectly clear about something. When I went to see the movie, I had only the vaguest idea about it. I had seen a number of excitingly edited TV spots, so I knew for certain that it was a Robert Redford film, and that it was about the Lincoln assassination. That was enough to intrigue me. As I watched it in the theater, I was caught up in the story, the sheer drama of it, as well as the realization that it was filmed in Savannah, Georgia–a city near and dear to my heart.  Months later, I found myself looking back in awe at the performance of Robin Wright as Mary Surratt. Oh sure, it’s one thing for an actor to craft a performance that grabs viewers viscerally and holds them in the moment, but it’s quite another thing to present a portrayal that sneaks up on a viewer’s consciousness and lingers there long after the closing credits roll. That’s the kind of greatness Wright achieves in The Conspirator.

The real Mary Surratt: there are no photographs of her wearing her veil in court since cameras were not permitted in the courtroom at the time; however, there are sketches of her with the veil all over the Internet.

According to the historians included on the DVD featurettes, Mary Surratt was something of an alienating presence in the courtroom. Naturally, anyone associated with committing what was surely the crime of the century was automatically vilified in the public’s mind, but something else fueled disdain. Oh sure, she was a woman on trial with a pack of men, but she also shrouded herself in a black veil as though masking her identity in order to escape scrutiny. This inscrutable quality is the key to Wright’s terrific performance. Surratt is a plain spoken woman, and Wright’s authoritative delivery reveals her as someone who measures her words carefully though she doesn’t back down from what she believes. Listen to the edge in her voice when she asserts to her skeptical, inexperienced attorney,  “I am a Southerner, I’m a Catholic, and a devoted mother above all else, but I am no assassin.” Additionally, her tone is unsparingly matter-of-fact when she explains how/why she ended up with criminals in her home. Mercifully, Wright doesn’t go overboard with the Southern accent. On the other hand, aside from ongoing concern for her son’s safety,  Surratt is not prone to huge emotional outbursts or pleas for sympathy, which does not bode well for Wright’s chances at this year’s awards derby.  Generally speaking, the Academy likes performances that encourage an obvious  display of talent, which is not necessarily the same thing as flat-out hamminess.  Even so, there are real flashes of genius in Wright’s portrayal of a woman who remains stubbornly unknowable: the steely gaze, the way she holds herself, including a telling tilt of the head, and, as noted, the impeccable, inspired choices in the way she speaks her dialogue, which probably doesn’t look lip smacking good on the page. I’m amazed that she is able to mine the straightforward language for such meaning.

No Wright doesn’t look exactly like Mary Surratt though she has been costumed effectively, but look closely because she seems to be holding her face almost identically to Surratt’s in the above photo.

The plain faced Surratt with her severe hairstyle and funeral wardrobe is far, far removed from The Princess Bride‘s luscious  Buttercup that Wright played back in 1987. The actress, a Dallas native raised in California, had already spent a few years on the Emmy winning daytime drama Santa Barbara (I freely admit to being a fan), ultimately earning three Emmy nominations herself, before she was cast as the heroine of Rob Reiner’s  storybook romp about true love (from the novel by William Goldman). Since then, Wright has balanced a passion for work in independent films with the occasional big studio production. Her resume includes three Independent Spirit nominations, the most recent being for Sorry, Haters.  Heard of it? No? What about Nine Lives, from Rodrigo Garcia, the acclaimed director of Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her? See what I mean? On the other hand, Wright has also earned Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for her work as Forrest Gump‘s beloved Jenny.

Wright in The Princess Bride: “Why do you build me up (Build me up) Buttercup baby)”

Her accolades also extend to SAG noms for She’s So Lovely (1997) and the TV mini-series Empire Falls (from Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel).  She even co-starred in Breaking and Entering, the final film of the late Oscar winning director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient).  I also have a soft spot for her performance in 1992’s The Playboys, in which she plays an unwed Irish mother, circa 1950,  who refuses to answer villagers’ questions about the identity of her baby’s father.  At the time, Wright had done little to suggest she was capable of such a complex portrayal, but she knocked my socks off though the performance was mostly forgotten by awards time.  Her Mary Surratt is in its own reserved, unglamorous way one of her most daring portrayals,  a towering achievement, and definitely worth a second look.  I honestly don’t know what this actress has to do to get the Academy’s attention, but playing a woman who allegedly conspired to kill a president surely warrants a second or third look. On the other hand, because Wright is all over the place this year, what with roles in such high profile releases as Moneyball and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,  the Academy might be impressed enough by her versatility to recognize her at last.

Left to Right: James McAvoy as Frederick A. Aiken, Tom Wilkinson as Senator Reverdy Johnson, and Kevin Kline as Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War. The movie also features fine performances by Danny Huston, Colm Meaney, Stephen Root, and Evan Rachel Wood.

In The Conspirator, Wright shares the screen with the astonishing James McAvoy as Surratt’s attorney, Frederick A. Aiken. Actually, the filmmakers have taken a little license with this part of the story in that Surratt actually had two attorneys: Aiken and John W. Clampitt; however, the decision to focus on Aiken is not entirely arbitrary. What is not in doubt is that Surratt’s lead council was actually a Maryland Senator named Reverdy Johnson though, as the movie portrays, Johnson thought better of being directly linked to Surratt since they were both Southerners. In theory, the choice of Aiken is brilliant strategy, and this also explains why McAvoy is perfectly cast. One of McAvoy’s greatest strengths as an actor is that he has the seemingly magical ability to allow whatever emotion he’s feeling to flood his face. His righteous indignation is right there at the surface, and that is necessary in order to understand this character because at the beginning of the film, Aiken wants no part of Surratt. He believes defending her to be a betrayal of his service to the union army–as well as all those soldiers who died defending the union.  Aiken accepts the case mainly because he isn’t in a position to say no to Johnson. Over the course of the story,  he comes to realize two things: that “reasonable doubt” exists regarding Surratt’s culpability, and that the trial is a full-tilt sham more designed to mete-out revenge rather than justice.  In spite of his earlier skepticism,  Aiken eventually  views the trial as an affront to the very things he risked his life trying to uphold. This makes for an interesting dynamic. Wright’s Surratt resigns herself to the idea of a trial that is doomed before it even begins while Aiken becomes a man on a mission. Here again, McAvoy’s ability to summon all of a character’s passions and frustrations to the forefront of his being gives the movie a real thrust, especially given the inevitable outcome. Keep in mind that Aiken’s closing remarks during his defense of Mary Surratt were once heralded as one of the greatest orations of all time.  Sure, you can go online and read the entirety of the summation, but film is a visual medium, so there simply is no way to put that across onscreen, word for word.  Some shorthand is needed, and McAvoy’s  artless abandon is a way to get at Aiken’s essence. Oh yeah, the Scottish actor does a more than credible American accent. Always a plus.

C.S.Lewis: “The Lion all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it’.”

Most Amercian moviegoers probably have no recollection of James McAvoy prior to his performance as Mr. Tumnus–the Faun–in the 2005 blockbuster adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s classic The Narnia Chronicles: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Of course, he was hardly recognizable as the handsome man he is, what with all that Oscar winning character makeup by Howard Berger and Tami Lane.  I loved, loved, loved, The Lion, The Witch, etc., but not necessarily because of McAvoy. He’s also known in this country for a couple of big budget action flicks: Wanted (with Angelina Jolie–and, no, I did not see it), and the recent X-Men: First Class. Also not my cup. Actually, my first taste of McAvoy’s true greatness as an actor came with 2006’s The Last King of Scotland opposite Forest Whitaker, who went on to Oscar winning glory for his portrayal of the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Not to disrespect Whitaker, but this viewer thought that his colorful performance aside, The Last King of Scotland was really McAvoy’s movie.  The film was not so much an Amin biopic as it was a story about a young Scottish doctor who visits Uganda and ends up being commissioned as Amin’s phyician. Though McAvoy’s character is fictional, the movie is based on fact–and, more importantly, it is really the doctor’s story. The whole thing is seen through his eyes, and my guess is that McAvoy actually has more screen time than Whitaker; moreover, as in The Conspirator, McAvoy’s character experiences more emotional changes (than either Amin or Surratt). Of course, studio politics being what they are, Fox Searchlight, The Last King of Scotland‘s U.S. distributor, was never going to minimize Whitaker’s chances of an Oscar by pitting him against McAvoy for Best Actor, nor was there ever a chance that Whitaker, a respected character actor with a much higher profile  than McAvoy, would ever be promoted as a supporting player.  I am definitely familiar with the politics of Oscar campaigning, but that does not mean that I agree or endorse them.

James McAvoy in Atonement: he won the London Critics Circle Film Award for his portrayal of the long suffering Robbie Turner and was nominated for a host of others, including the British Academy of Film and Television Award, the European Film Award, and the Evening Standard British Film Award.

A year later, McAvoy did commendable work in Becoming Jane, another fictionalized account of a true story: that of Jane Austen’s “romance” with Thomas Lefroy–and the rocky road to becoming a writer. Also in 2007, McAvoy was simply magnificent as one of the star crossed lovers in Atonement. Though  the British period film received 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, McAvoy’s searing performance was overlooked by the Academy. Too bad. As I write in my last entry, the 2007 Best Actor Oscar was practically predestined for Daniel Day Lewis’s larger than life performance in There Will Be Blood, but I wish there had been room for Ryan Gosling (Lars and the Real Girl) and James McAvoy on the shortlist–especially over the canned theatrics of Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd. In 2009, McAvoy held his own against the likes of Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, and Paul Giamatti in The Last Station; Mirren and Plummer were Oscar nominated for their performances as Leo and Sophia Tolstaya, respectively, while McAvoy eked out a Satellite nod for Best Supporting Actor. Besides the not entirely prestigious Satellite contest, McAvoy has scarcely been recognized in the U.S. during awards time. He has a Golden Globe nomination for Atonement (not bad), and, oh yes, an MTV Movie Award nomination for Wanted (in the category of Best Kiss), and is currently on the ballot along with the entire X-Men cast for a People’s Choice Award. Well, at least the people recognize his talent; meanwhile, he is a frequent nominee for film awards all over the United Kingdom and Europe.

I do not know that any actor/actress/director, etc, is ever overdue for an Oscar, but I do think that less demonstrably talented individuals than Wright and McAvoy have certainly been acknowledged by the Academy, but I digress.

Aside from the performances of Wright and McAvoy, why do I like The Conspirator so much? I’ll be frank. I like it because I think it screws with people’s heads. Of course, playing with an audience’s perceptions and expectations is no guarantee of greatness; however, I think a movie that prompts viewers to reconsider their notions of patriotism, justice, and revenge, is certainly worth celebrating. Obviously, a parallel with the treatment of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, a point made abundantly clear as director Redford allows the cameras to linger over the hooded heads of the other conspirators in their cells. The images could easily fit in with some of the photos from Abu Ghraib. Beyond that, there’s something interesting at work.  Some skeptics have argued that  James B. Solomon’s script errs by not making a bigger issue of slavery and its role in the Civil War.  It is true that slavery is pretty well ignored, yet I also think that most moviegoers, especially those who would even be inclined to watch The Conspirator,  know full well that the issue of slavery certainly played a part in the war–to what degree is not universally understood–and do not need to be reminded. As someone who minored in Human Rights Education, I find slavery and capital punishment equally abhorrent, which is one reason why this movie fascinates me so. There is evidence that the Surratts were slaveholders, so what I see in this film is that a woman who is implicitly a violator of human rights is railroaded and punished in yet a further violation of human rights. Whoah! I mean, my head was constantly swimming given all The Conspirator‘s layers of implications–and I think the “take away” is that this post 9-11, recession driven nation’s red state-blue state, Tea Party/Occupy Wall Street,  mentality has so polarized this nation–fueled in part by a desperately blood thirsty news apparatus and the very Internet that makes a blog such as this possible–that we need to be more cognizant about the fine line between justice and revenge. We don’t want another Civil War, and as I write this on November 22, we don’t want another assassination.

The Conspirator is the first release from the American Film Company, the mission of which is to produce “engaging movies for grown-ups based on great American stories.” A bio of company founder  and CEO John Ricketts adds that the AFC was “conceived” in order “to celebrate the extraordinary characters and events from American history.” The idea is for each film to be scrupulously researched in order to be as accurate as possible. In this particular case,  The Conspirator benefits from such experts as Fred L.  Borch III (a retired colonel and a legal historian for the U.S. Armed forces), Thomas R. Turner (Bridgewater College professor and editor of the journal, Lincoln Herald), Dr. James McPherson (Princeton University professor and Pulitzer Prize winner for Battle Cry of Freedom), and Melissa Jacobson (Diablo Valley College history professor). Additionally,  Kate Clifford Larson, author of The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln), is featured on the movie’s website as well as the DVD documentaries.  Again, I’m not a historian, so I cannot attest to the movie’s veracity, but the visual documentation on the DVD shows that a lot of care has been taken in recreating the particulars of the story, such as the building surrounded on three sides by water that housed Surratt and the other prisoners, the thrown together courtroom, the makeshift gallows. Technically, the movie looks great–thanks to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, production designer Kalina Ivanov (an Emmy winner for the TV adaptation of Grey Gardens), and costume designer Louise Frogley. Of course, filming in a beautiful historic city such as Savannah helps.

Finally, I was struck by one thing I learned from the DVD featurettes, which is that the objections raised by Aiken during Surratt’s trial were “constantly” overruled.  The movie also gets this much right–staggeringly so, I would say–to the point that I wonder if Lincoln was the only victim of a conspiracy back in 1865.  I guess that’s the point: revenge is no substitute for justice.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Eastwood is a two-time winner for Best Director: 1992’s Unforgiven, and 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, both of which also won Best Picture, thereby ensuring two more golden statuettes for Eastwood as co-producer. He also directed and co-produced Mystic River (2003) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), which netted him additional nominations.

[2] Redford won an Oscar for directing 1980’s Best Picture winner Ordinary People; he also scored nods for directing and co-producing 1994’s Best Picture contender, Quiz Show.

[3] An alternative theory is that Booth escaped to Texas, working as a bartender by the name of John St. Helen in Granbury: http://www.granbury.org/index.aspx?NID=705

Atlantic Monthly article by Alex Hoyt:


Link to the American Film Company website with lots of notes and links to other websites, including the Surratt House Museum, with loads of historical info:


Even though there is plenty of material about The Conspirator on the AFC website, there is another site devoted exclusively to the movie, which includes a blog by Robert Redford:


C.S. Lewis quote from On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature (p. 53):


Frederick Aiken bio with reference to the World’s Best Orations:


Frederick Aiken’s defense of Mary Surratt:


Link to award winning short film about Surratt, The Killing of Mary Surratt:



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