Sucker Punch Squad: Robert Redford’s 'The Conspirator' Takes Aim at Bush

(As with all Sucker Punch Squad reviews, what follows is a review of the script, not the final film – which I’ve not yet seen.)

Despite their insistence that Americans "get over" 9/11 even though we're still at war with Islamic fundamentalists, the Left refuses to get over the Bush administration and the war in Iraq that we've already won. The Hollywood Left, with their “Bush lied, people died,” bumper-sticker brain capacity, are especially determined to keep flogging that dead horse long after American audiences have proven that they reject such defeatist, morally inverted propaganda.

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And so if you think a new movie about the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln might make a gripping historical thriller and be refreshingly free of Hollywood lectures about the ill-named War on Terror, you'd be wrong on both counts.

Robert Redford recently unveiled his period piece The Conspirator at the Toronto International Film Festival. It begins with the assassination of Lincoln and centers on one apparent conspirator, Mary Surratt, on trial for providing gunman John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices (including her son) with a location to plot their conspiracy (her boardinghouse) and with other assistance. Mary, who “kept the nest that hatched the egg,” as Andrew Johnson put it, ended up being the first woman ever executed by the U.S. government.

But strangely – or maybe predictably, if you're as cynical about Hollywood as I am – one figure looms as a more insistent presence in Redford’s courtroom drama than Surratt, Booth or Lincoln: President George W. Bush.

Time’s Richard Corliss gleefully latched onto “the most troubling and satisfying aspect of The Conspirator”: the comparison it draws between the government’s actions immediately after the Lincoln shooting “and the Bush Administration's actions in the months and years after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.”

(In case you’re confused by the bland, generic term “events,” Corliss is referring to the act of war against America by Muslim terrorists; he and the Left, however, want you to get over those attacks and think of them as “events”; and while you’re at it, don’t be an insensitive, racist Islamophobe by mentioning the “Muslim terrorists.”)

Corliss helpfully explains the historical parallel:
In this movie, [Secretary of War Edwin] Stanton is the stand-in for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld; he proposes lurid theories of revolution and, when challenged, replies, “Who's to say these things couldn't happen?” In a direct parallel to the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq as a crowd-pleasing alternative to the fruitless search for Osama bin Laden, one Surratt sympathizer says that Stanton & Co. are trying Mary “because they can't find John [her son, who temporarily escaped].”

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Apart from the fact that our toppling of Saddam Hussein was in no way a mere “crowd-pleasing alternative to the fruitless search” for bin Laden, Corliss is otherwise correct about the post-9/11 parallels. In the immediate aftermath of both the Lincoln assassination and 9/11, the world was changed, no one knew what would happen next, and our leaders had to take swift, decisive – the Left says excessive – actions to seize conspirators, prevent further potentially imminent acts of terrorism, and punish the perpetrators. Redford himself half-hinted, half-confessed that the story “relates very much to the present, but it's up to the audience to decide for themselves how.”

In the script, novice defense attorney Frederick Aiken (played in the film by James MacAvoy) is assigned to defend Mary (Robin Wright Penn) before a corrupt, closed-door military tribunal bent more on impassioned revenge than dispassionate justice. One soldier, described pointedly as “PATRIOTISM personified,” even commits perjury on the stand to help convict her. Aiken himself initially believes her guilty, but quickly finds the truth to be complicated and the Constitution itself in jeopardy from a military that has taken advantage of the post-assassination panic to exceed the limits of its power. “When the wicked are in authority,” Aiken quotes from the Bible, “transgressions increase.”

And those transgressions include the trampling of our individual rights. The prison cells in The Conspirator are swiftly loaded with hooded innocents swept up in “STANTON’S REIGN OF TERROR” – his roundup of anyone even tangentially connected to the shooting (the caps and underlining are there in the script to make sure you grasp that reestablishing security and order in the hours after Lincoln’s shocking murder constitutes a REIGN OF TERROR; I half-expected the prison to be described as “STANTON’S GUANTANAMO”).

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For the Left, the real threat is not avowed American enemies like Islamic fundamentalists, but conservatives playing the "politics of fear" card to seize power and abuse it. As national security expert Woody Harrelson put it: "The war against terrorism is terrorism. The whole thing is just bullshit." Sadly, this quote can’t be chalked up entirely to his strict marijuana-and-vegan diet. Harrelson's comment reflects a willful blindness that consumes most of Hollywood: “There is no terrorist threat,” says noted defense analyst Michael Moore.

And so the heavy handed moralizing about our endangered civil liberties begins early in The Conspirator and is hammered home more loudly and steadily than the nails in Mary Surratt’s gallows:

“None of us is safe when a citizen can be dragged from her home, held without charge and denied access to counsel – merely on a suspicion.”

“Had our founding fathers desired tyranny to prevail, I’m sure they’d have intended for the President and his War Secretary to have such indiscriminate powers.”

“Don’t be so eager to throw away Mary’s rights. One day you may need them.”

“By abandoning our laws we become just like [the enemy].”

“If we’re to be destroyed it will be from within. By failing to protect our Constitution and its laws.”

The Left love to circle the wagons ‘round the Constitution when it suits them to paint conservatives as totalitarian oppressors - and yet no President has ever been a greater threat to our Constitution than radical leftist Barack Obama. In any case, presenting the supposed railroading of Mary Surratt as a metaphor for the Bush administration's supposed post-9/11 shredding of the Constitution makes for both a thin comparison and a poor story.

Redford's condemnation isn't reserved only for the Bush administration. Aiken is defending Mary and America not only from a power-mad military junta, but from a citizen rabble lusting for revenge.“What kind of nation are we, one ruled by laws? Or by the fury of our people?” According to this script, it's dangerously close to being the latter. Mary is at the mercy of a vengeful mob mentality; Aiken is the lone voice of conscience against a vengeful mob mentality; the generals are driven by their vengeful mob mentality, etc. The parallel being, apparently, that Americans were a vengeful mob after 9/11.

But in fact America did not lust blindly for revenge after the 9/11 attacks; Americans rightly wanted justice but were not, and still are not, out to indiscriminately round up Muslims to hang 'em high, despite insupportable charges of a tidal wave of Islamophobia made by Muslim Brotherhood front groups like CAIR and Obama’s masters at the Organization of the Islamic Conference. And to suggest that we are is further evidence of the Left’s condescension toward, and contempt for, decent Americans.

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Though I respect billionaire Joe Ricketts’ patriotic desire – through his new production shingle, the American Film Company – to “make incredible true stories from America's past,” The Conspirator is an odd and obscure choice for a first film. James Solomon's screenplay seems notably faithful to the historical facts, as much as a docudrama can be. But it’s a story of very marginal significance in American history, apart from its potential as an emblematic sledgehammer with which to bash the Bush administration. Maybe the AFC was simply overexcited to score Redford as a director, thinking he would deliver another excellent film like Quiz Show; instead, activist Redford couldn’t stop himself from turning out another preachy anti-war bore like his 2007 preachy anti-war bore, Lions for Lambs.

Was the real Mary Surratt guilty of aiding and abetting the conspirators? Almost certainly. That is the historical consensus, and at least one historian, Kate Clifford Larson, was led to that conclusion even though she began her book The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln intending to prove Mary innocent. Mary’s guilt is less a question of debate today than is the severity of her sentence – today she surely would not be put to death. And I think it would make a more interesting mystery if Redford had drawn her as guilty or at least made her role in the conspiracy ambiguous, instead of painting her as such an uninteresting, sanctimonious martyr.

But ultimately, this movie is not about Mary Surratt’s guilt or innocence anyway. The one who’s on trial is George W. Bush.

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