Friday, April 15, 2011

"Where the Union Cause goes to die"

This week marks the anniversary of both the beginning of the Civil War and of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Hollywood, in the person of Robert Redford, has decided it is a good time to release The Conspirator, a film about the trial of those who would soon be convicted for the assassination, focusing on Mary Surratt, the woman who owned the house where the conspiracy was plotted. It isn't unusual for Hollywood to appropriate history to make a political point and one would be hard put to identify any recent film by Redford that wasn't politically tendentious. This Washington Post review by Ann Hornaday makes it clear that this film won't break his string.
.... Although historians, including Surratt biographer Kate Clifford Larson, agree that Surratt was almost certainly guilty of conspiracy, Redford needs to court ambiguity in order for viewers to buy in to her plight, so rather than the keeper of “the nest that hatched the egg” of the would-be coup, he portrays her as a martyred mother, going to her grave rather than betray her likely culpable son (who was cooling his heels in Canada while his mother was tried and hanged).

But Redford also needs to smooth out Surratt’s rougher edges because of his larger agenda, which is to portray her trial as a miscarriage of justice that, in its prosecution of civilians in military court, selective evidence, skirting of the Constitution and abrogation of due process, bears more than passing resemblance to post-9/11 policies. From the bags put over the heads of Surratt and her fellow detainees to the Rumsfeld-esque wire-rim glasses Kline wears as Stanton, Redford’s point is clear: Regardless of her guilt or innocence, Surratt was the victim of a grievous injustice that violated the most cherished ideals of the country she was accused of trying to destroy.

To make his point, Redford skirts a few crucial realities, not the least of which is that Surratt’s treatment in the civil court of her day probably wouldn’t have been much better....

... As University of Virginia history professor Gary Gallagher gracefully proves in his book Causes Won, Lost and Forgotten, about how popular culture has shaped ideas about the Civil War, the preservation of the Union has never been deemed worth valorizing by filmmakers, who have historically been more drawn to Lost Cause romanticism or self-flattering stories that emphasize emancipation of enslaved people or the reconciliation of the white South and white North. (At one point in The Conspirator, noting the higher causes they both fought for, Surratt tells Aiken, “We’re the same,” a classic reconciliationist elision of the myriad ways the two sides weren’t the same.)

Considering the depiction of white Union soldiers in such late-20th-century movies as Glory and Dances With Wolves, Gallagher writes, “recent Civil War films fail almost completely to convey any sense of what the Union Cause meant to millions of northern citizens. More than that, they often cast the U.S. military, a military force that saved the republic and destroyed slavery, in a decidedly negative, post-Vietnam light.”

Replace “post-Vietnam” with “post-Iraq” and you get a pretty good description of how the U.S. military is portrayed in The Conspirator. Rather than a principle worth fighting for, or a fragile democracy still vulnerable to dead-enders who would reignite the war, the Union is painted as the nest that hatched the egg of an overweening state and arrogant abuse of power. Hollywood may be where Confederates are buried in their onetime capital, but for moviegoers, it’s still the place where the Union Cause goes to die. [more]
Robert Redford’s ‘The Conspirator’ and the lost Union cause - The Washington Post