This film would have remained unknown to me if it had not been for @sree (sree srinivasan) who is not quite a facebook friend but is a well known Journalism prof at an eminent univeristy. While Mr Redford’s directorial efforts often attract one;s attention , it was not after the Milagro – Beanfield wars that one was impressed by anything the man did (Baggervance was speilbergian psychobabble, Horse whisperer was Appalachian Psychobabble and a river runs through it was an IMAX film before its time)
Walking into a “history lesson” by Mr Redford with such a frame of mind, one was pleasantly surprised to see the Iron fist in the velvet liberal narrative in the film about a chapter of American history that Ought to be forgotten, and was , by everyone except the winners, who have been repeating it, many times over, for the benefit of all those they have engulfed in forgetfulness powder, which is the American way of writing history.
Mary Surrat (played here by Robin Wright Penn) ran a boarding house where the conspiracy to kill Abe Lincoln was hatched, by, among others her son, John Surrat. When the good president was killed, the Secretary of war (the 19th century equivalent to Hillary Clinton) navigated a witch hunt through an emotionally scarred and paranoid union , even as the confederacy surrendered slowly, and confederate rebels appeared to splinter and fight on. and they lived among US. (every southerner was suspect, remember, of confederate sympathies to Richmond) . The trial of mary Surrat, a southern catholic woman, (three strikes) among the conspirators was supposed to be a foregone conclusion, except for those insisting in the due process of the law because it was clear that in an effort to make justice speedy, the prosecution had been sloppy, and there was room for reasonable doubt if the matter was tried in civilian court under peacetime rules. It was not. The millitary tribunal trying the Lincoln conspirators, like all millitary courts had only one plea in mind: Guilty. So far, this plays out like a Khalid sheik mohammed trial that’s going to take place sometime next year in Guantanamo Bay. (Mr Mohammed has confessed to many Sep 11 related crimes , allegedly under the influence of waterboarding, which is a technique classified as torture under the Geneva Convention, if he is tried in a civilian court he walks…probably back to Karachi where he may or not be part of an Anti American terrorist group) .
The drama in the film then takes a turn for the cinematically operatic as Mr Redford slowly and unsubtly ratchets up the outrage at the civil liberties being outraged in such a dastardly fashion “Inter Arma Silent Legis” concludes the Public Prosecutor to Fredrick Aiken(played ably by James Mc Avoy, a redford stand in If I ever saw one), the Union General , now a lawyer defending Mary Surrat. ” in the time of war the law is silent.” The film then makes a point that the year after, the US supreme court unanimously declared the writ of habeus corpus was applicable in war and in peace and to every person citizen or alien anywhere in the world, and because of which, the more suspicious son of Mary, John Surrat escaped punishment. Justice was blind here.
So what is the director outraged about? That an innocent woman died from a witch hunt? that laws were suspended at the time of war? that the protagonist of his tale didn’t prevail even if his cause was just? All this but I saw something more in his reshaping of historical narrative to make a point. It was the vital role of liberalism in building and maintainong civil societies.
Some parts of the world (including some parts of the US) are always at war. Going by the logic of Guantanamo Bay (and Abu Gareib) there will never be a time when the war on terror will be over. Does this mean that the legis (civilian law) is silent forever when it comes to the voices of those inter arma( the people that take it upon themselves to declare war on other people) ? and redford’s answer seems to be YES! unless there is liberal outrage at the violation of civil liberties of , not the strong and the majority , but of the weak, the single , the straggler and the unrepresented. Reminds me of Gandhi’s quote of development ” is not true until the last person in line has seen his life benefit from it” .
By this yardstick, today’s liberals screaming as they are for humanitarian intervention in libya,and the invasion of Iran, the laws be damned, have failed in their duty to act as an electorate’s conscience. America is a Nation without a conscience, Because its liberals have let it down.
The Indictment is handed out in a tone of didact from the pulpit of history with a measured distance by the film which attempts to redefine the word Important, as it applies to films. We have been through stylistic and literary movements that concentrated first on the structuralism of the art and then when this became wildly successful, used form to subvert meaning and function and took a post modern turn into stylish reducio ad absurdum that consumed every last vestige of meaning in art, because , it was held, the Soviet Union took with it the potent power of burgoise art. We were, in Post modernism , celebrating the fall of the Soviet Union, while the people that injected us with that drug went and drove planes in Buildings, declared America under military law and color coded alerts, and upped defense related spending to unrealistically high levels.( you gotta have a defense related business in your portfolio to make money these days.) With all those weapons we criminalized nationalism , demanded that nations capitulate their patriarchal modest values to our female empowerment agendas, declared war for oil and profit honorable, made chinese slave manufacturing and robber barn Capitalism the king and speculated away our houses, all for another fix of the drug called post modernism.
Enough. The film seems to say. There is an ethical bottom line and this is it. good people need to feel the outrage, for this nation to remain the America of its ideals. The question is: are there enough good people whose brains are detoxed from the post modern drug, and are they sufficiently powerful to find it in themselves to demand this change from the outrage.
After all, Postmodernism criminalized outrage with “weapons of mass destruction”.