Wednesday, November 21, 2012

R. Kent Newmyer's "The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr"

Kent Newmyer is Professor of Law and History at the University of Connecticut School of Law. His books include The Supreme Court Under Marshall and Taney, John Marshall & the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court, and Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: Statesman of the Old Republic.

Here Newmyer shares some suggestions for casting an adaptation of his latest book, The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr: Law, Politics, and the Character Wars of the New Nation:
I've been telling friends, jokingly of course, not to buy my book on the treason trial of Aaron Burr until they see the movie. But now the moment of truth has come. The action takes place in the House of Delegates in Richmond, which during the trial looked every bit like a makeshift Elizabethan theater where the lawyers and the parties in the case were almost indistinguishable from the spectators. Former Vice-president Burr is in the dock, accused of treason (without benefit of even a grand jury indictment) by President Jefferson, who undertook to micro-manage the prosecution from the White House--a fact that brought him face-to-face with his old enemy Chief Justice John Marshall who sat as trial judge. The character of the main players figured largely in the trial, so casting is crucial.

Aaron Burr: short, handsome, piercing dark eyes that captivated the women in (and out of) the courtroom. A Revolutionary war veteran: a gifted New York politician in hostile territory in Jeffersonian Virginia; a brilliant lawyer who directed his own defense; a good play actor, as he confessed, who found it easy to play the innocent victim of a vengeful president (which was easy to do since it was largely true). Burr finds it hard to contain his contempt for Jefferson, the government's lawyers, and their witnesses--and occasionally even John Marshall. Since Richard Burton is no longer with us, nor Paul Newman, and Richard Gere is too old, I would suggest Tom Cruise.

Thomas Jefferson was all over the case, but worked his magic back in Washington, letting his minions in Richmond take the heat. During the trial Jefferson was vindictive, self-righteous, and harshly judgmental. He hated his cousin John Marshall and truly believed that Burr was an enemy of the Republic who had to be eliminated. Jeremy Irons gets the role hands down.

John Marshall, a young-looking 52 at the time of the trial; tall, loose-jointed, and handsome, with dark eyes to rival Burr's. Has to have gravitas without arrogance. The best lawyer in a room full of gifted lawyers. Cool under fire. An aristocratic democrat. Jimmy Stewart would have done brilliantly just playing himself. George Clooney gets the first offer.

The animated lawyers and the extravagant Wilkinson will be cast later, along with Burr's beautiful daughter Theodosia, who also played a part in the melodrama. Finally, the cast of many hundreds who flocked to Richmond to see the action can be recruited as extras from Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard.
Learn more about The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr at the Cambridge University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr.

--Marshal Zeringue