IMDB says... Mary Surratt is the lone female charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination trial of Abraham Lincoln. As the whole nation turns against her, she is forced to rely on her reluctant lawyer to uncover the truth and save her life.
The 73rd Virgin says... A lot better than JFK. Now that we have that out of the way, sit up straight and open your textbooks. This is the first film from a new film company called, prosaically enough, The American Film Company, which claims it will make entertaining and accurate films about American history. Fine. Can’t argue with that. Here, they are about three-fourths successful by using Brit actor James McAvoy as attorney Frederick Aiken who is appointed to defend Mary Surratt. She is accused as a conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and along with her 7 co-defendants will be the first US citizen tried by a military tribunal.
We begin with a pointless scene of Captain Aiken wounded on a Civil War battlefield telling the “medics” to care for his dying soldier first. It doesn’t contribute much and does nothing to really establish any particular horror or atmosphere or even significance of the Civil War. I guess they assume everyone has watched Ken Burns’ documentary. Next he is being introduced around Washington D.C. as the captain who had two horses shot out from under him in one battle, and as an up and coming attorney. This happens to be the night Lincoln is killed and Aiken sees him (I dunno - maybe) carried across the street from Fords Theater to the house where he will die. Secretary of War Stanton (Kevin Kline) takes charge, kicks Mary Lincoln out, tells his assistants to keep Johnson away from the liquor and orders the city more or less locked down.
A few days later Aiken goes to work for Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (another Brit, Tom Wilkinson), and he is almost immediately put in charge of Mary Surratt’s defense. He believes her guilty and doesn’t want to defend her. In time he is troubled by her insistence that she is essentially innocent, although she may have had an inkling of what was going on, and, as the trial begins, by the way the War Department seems to be orchestrating the tribunal by tampering with witnesses.
From this point forward we have a surprisingly unsurprising by-the-numbers courtroom drama with stern bulldozing generals on the tribunal, cringing, hateful, lying witnesses, and a crusading handsome young attorney. We even get the socially connected fiancé who begs Aiken to get off the case for her sake. Didn’t see that coming. Aiken is also kicked out of his old Washington gentleman’s club (not a strip joint) and has a shouting and pointing scene with Stanton (I dunno – maybe).
When McAvoy is on screen, or when we are getting a quick and dirty recap of the night of the assassination, we’ve got a movie. McAvoy is charismatic and serious and extremely watchable. Robin Wright has aged to play a dignified, pursed-lipped, not very friendly, unrepentant southern sympathizing Roman Catholic widow who runs the boarding house where her son and John Wilkes Booth and a host of malcontents hatched a plan originally to kidnap Lincoln, which morphed into a plan to kill at least Lincoln, Secretary of State Seward, and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Wilkinson is dull and broad as the old southern Senator Johnson. Kevin Kline is better but their dreary arguments over the Constitution and the nation healing would seem to come from a high school play or have been inserted in order to help 10th grade Civics teachers develop discussion topics. I got the feeling there was a study guide. I was right.
We know how it ends if we’ve ever read anything. I made it through 12 grades of American history without once hearing of a conspiracy to kill Lincoln, but did happen to read on my own time the great, The Day Lincoln Was Shot, when I was about 12. My impression from that book is that Mary was guilty but, yes, her treatment at the hands of the War Department is harrowing and sad. For what it’s worth, Lincoln grew his beard after his first election in part to serve as a disguise so that he could be snuck into D.C. by Pinkerton men. Assassination plots were unrelenting from the day he was elected to the day he died.
Aiken eventually manages to get a writ of habeas corpus, from a federal judge who was one of Lincoln’s pall bearers, in order to force a civilian trial for Surratt but President Johnson cancels it. The movie dodges the irony that he cancels it under the Suspension Act that Lincoln had signed and put into action so aggressively.
Knowing the context of the assassination, just days after Lee surrendered and with dozens of Confederate generals still in the field fighting, and the simple fact that the War Department had every reason to feel like they were at war with these crazy-ass crackers, citizens or not, I’m only a little sympathetic to Mrs. Surratt and not at all to the other seven for their treatment.
Ah, the old moral equivalency trope. Yeah bullshit.
A brief perusal of Wikipedia indicates that this really is historically accurate in the big picture, right down to the questionable witnesses for the prosecution. That said, we should be thankful that Aiken’s closing statement is NOT overly historically accurate. You may read it here. To the extent that I can interpret impossibly flowery 19th century legal-ese, the script does a good job of compressing his main points.
Director Robert Redford and crew do a nice job of showing the world in bright colors rather than sepia tones. These people and this city look like a war just ended and they’re ready to brighten and loosen things up a bit. And they try to establish the sorrow of the country with newspaper headlines and long shots of the train that carries Lincoln back to Illinois for burial. But overall there is something flat and television-ish about the presentation, something static and preachy about the court scenes – despite all the shafts of light and smoke-wreathed witnesses. The essential matter-of-fact dullness of the characters and the predictable nature of a courtroom drama make this only a little entertaining. If you never tire of TV’s Law & Order, this may put you in hog heaven. There is a great, exciting, heartbreaking movie yet to be made in the story of the conspirators. A 1998 TNT movie was a decent try.