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Midyear Meeting

Legal History and Popcorn Mix at Special Showings of Redford Film ‘The Conspirator’

Posted Feb 12, 2011 8:30 PM CDT
By James Podgers

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Corrected: An unusual must-do has taken ABA Midyear Meeting attendees slightly off script, as they take in special viewings of The Conspirator, a soon-to-be-released film that tells the little-known story of Mary Surratt and the young lawyer who represented her on charges of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

The film’s producers and the ABA have sponsored special free showings of the film at a movie complex near downtown Atlanta, where the meeting is being held. A final showing will take place on Sunday afternoon. The film will go into nationwide release on April 15, the 146th anniversary of Lincoln’s death the morning after he was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre, only days after the Civil War ended.

The Conspirator, and the issues it raises about how the law functions in times of deep national crisis, also were the focus of a panel program held Saturday. The program, “In Time of War Do the Laws Fall Silent?," was sponsored by the standing committees on Public Education and Membership.

The film is the first release by the American Film Co., said Alfred Levitt, the company’s chief operating officer, in an interview with the ABA Journal following the program. Levitt is a former partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner in Washington, D.C. (ABA President Stephen N. Zack is administrative partner at the firm’s Miami office.)

Levitt said the company is the brainchild of Joe Ricketts, who founded Ameritrade and has become involved in a number of other ventures. The idea of the American Film Co., said Levitt, “is to bring incredible, true stories from American history to life on the big screen.”

Levitt said the producers hope films like The Conspirator reach an untapped audience of filmgoers who are interested in great stories based on real events. They already have found leading members of the filmmaking community who are interested in making such films. The Conspirator was directed by Robert Redford, and among its stars are Robin Wright, who plays Mary Surratt, James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, the young lawyer who reluctantly represents her, and actors Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson and Evan Rachel Wood.

“All of our first picks we got,” said Levitt. “These guys want to make this kind of movie, with plot, character and dialog. There are fewer opportunities to get a project like this.”

In depicting how Surratt was tried by a special military commission appointed by President Andrew Johnson (who also was targeted for assassination by Booth and his compatriots), The Conspirator raises questions about the conflict between national security and the legal rights of individuals that resonate in the post-Sept. 11 world.

In exploring those issues, “What you’re really asking is, what happens to democracy when it’s under extreme stress?” said Saturday's program panelist Charles J. Dunlap Jr., a former deputy advocate general for the U.S. Air Force who now is a law professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Screenwriter James D. Solomon said he came to see some of the same issues after he started working on the script in 1993. “I was writing about a human, and I think timeless, story about the relationship between Mary Surratt and her attorney,” Solomon told a packed house at the program. “The ideas about law and security were more abstract. But after 9-11, they were less abstract.”

The ABA has no formal involvement with the film, but both the filmmakers and the association recognize that there are good reasons to bring it to the attention of lawyers. Levitt said the producers see lawyers as part of the core audience for the film. And bringing attention to important legal issues is part of the ABA’s larger mission, said Patricia Refo, who chairs the Standing Committee on Membership.

The film, said Refo, a partner at Snell & Wilmer in Phoenix, “reminds lawyers of the highest calling of the profession.”

The American Film Co. already has another film in development, said Levitt. Titled Midnight Riders, it tells the story of Paul Revere and his companions. It is, said Levitt, “a little more of a swashbuckler.”

Also see:

ABANow: "Hollywood Heads to Atlanta for Sneak Peek of Redford’s Latest Film, and Documentary Filmmaker’s Revelations of Child Trafficking and Slavery"

Corrected at 11 a.m. Feb. 13 to note that Midnight Riders is in development rather than in production.

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