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Viewer Guide: Absence of Malice and The Conspirator

October 9, 2020 | Richard Peña


Absence of Malice (1981)

This week’s classic is Absence of Malice, the 1981 romantic drama directed by Sydney Pollack.

Taking its title from a legal term for a defense against libel, Absence of Malice opens with an unsolved mystery: what happened to Miami union boss Joey Diaz?  Missing for six months, Diaz is presumed murdered, and Federal prosecutor Elliot Rosen, played by Bob Balaban, is convinced he has more than a hunch who killed him—a certain liquor wholesaler named Michael Colin Gallagher, played by Paul Newman.  Gallagher’s mob boss father is long dead, but his Uncle Santos is still very much a “good fella.”  The trouble is, Rosen simply doesn’t have a case, but stopping by the Dade County Courthouse one day is Megan Carter, a reporter for the fictitious “Miami Standard,” played by Sally Field.  Her journalistic instincts soon detect that something indeed is going on, but unwittingly she becomes a pawn in Rosen’s scheme to pressure Gallagher to come forward by writing a story on his suspected involvement in Diaz’s disappearance.  Mission accomplished, sort of: the story succeeds in getting Gallagher to emerge, but not in the way Carter expects. Infuriated, Gallagher arrives at her office unannounced and demanding to know her sources.  Intrigued with her dashing but taciturn suspect, and still suspicious that Gallagher is hiding something, Carter enters into a cat and mouse game with him, a pursuit that ultimately turns romantic.  But when her reporting starts going a bit too far, Gallagher is forced to turn the tables to clear his name.

Also featured in supporting roles are Melinda Dillon as Gallagher’s fragile childhood friend, and Wilford Brimley as the U.S. Assistant Attorney General trying to untangle fact from fiction.

Absence of Malice was the first screenplay by former newspaper reporter and editor Kurt Luedtke, and was reportedly inspired by a 1964 libel case against The New York Times.  Despite a mostly favorable response from movie critics, there was a derisive reaction in the journalism community, especially toward the dubious ethics of Sally Field’s character.  Matters weren’t helped when the famously press-shy Paul Newman made comments that the movie was an attack on publications like The New York Post, which reportedly then banned the star’s name from their pages.  A box office success that acquired a reputation as an antidote to heroic investigative reporter movies like All the President’s Men, the film garnered three Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay as well as Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress for Newman and Melinda Dillon.


The Conspirator (2010)

Tonight’s indie is The Conspirator, a 2010 historical drama directed by Robert Redford.

It’s just five days after the end of the Civil War, and Union army veteran Frederick Aiken, a young lawyer played by James McAvoy, is celebrating with his compatriots at an elite Washington party sprinkled with high-profile members of President Lincoln’s cabinet, including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, played by Kevin Kline.  Although rebel Confederate forces are still at large, with General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, America’s long and bloody internal strife is joyously over.  But the date is April 14, 1865, and later that night, the nation is convulsed once again by John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater.  Secretary Stanton leads a fast-moving investigation that rounds up most of the alleged conspirators, including Mary Surratt, played by Robin Wright, the Confederate-sympathizing widow whose Washington boarding house becomes identified as a hotbed of assassination plotting.  Defending Surratt at the military tribunal convened to try the conspirators is Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson.  But as a representative from a state that joined the Confederacy, Johnson decides to hand off Surratt’s defense to Aiken, under the rationale that Aiken’s Yankee background might help her defense despite the overwhelming prejudice against her.  Initially balking at the assignment, Aiken undertakes his own investigation of the charges, and gradually comes to better understand not only his client, but the importance of providing her with a fair defense.

The Conspirator marked the first release of the American Film Company, a production company founded by TD Ameritrade tycoon, philanthropist and Chicago Cubs’ owner Joe Ricketts with the mission of dramatizing historical subjects.  Debuting at the Toronto Film Festival on the ninth anniversary of 9/11 in 2010, THE CONSPIRATOR’s depiction of the constitutional conflicts underlying the Mary Surratt trial ended up echoing news of the day with the Obama Administration’s decision—due to congressional restrictions—to try the five 9/11 conspirators held at Guantanamo Bay in military tribunals rather than New York City civilian courts.  And in another curious echo, after the demise of Frederick Aiken’s legal practice—in part due to his notoriety from defending Mary Surratt—Aiken became the first city editor of The Washington Post, the newspaper depicted in one of director Robert Redford’s most memorable films, All the President’s Men.

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