| Everyone knows that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by stage actor John Wilkes Booth at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865. Very few know about the conspiracy of Confederate sympathizers (of which Booth was a member) that planned to kill not only Lincoln, but also Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Booth was tracked down and killed 12 days after the shooting in a barn in rural northern Virginia. The rest of the conspirators were arrested and tried before a nine-member military tribunal.
Director Robert Redford (“Quiz Show” and “Ordinary People”) brings to the screen this historical drama revolving around the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright from “State of Play” and “Forrest Gump”), the lone female charged for the crime. Mary ran a boardinghouse where planning meetings took place. Her son John, an expert courier who carried secrets to the rebels, was reputed to be Booth’s right hand man. Mary was prohibited from testifying, but maintained her innocence. “I’m a Southerner, a Catholic and a mother,” declared Mary.
She was defended by Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy from “The Last Station,” “Atonement” and “The Last King of Scotland”), a former decorated Union officer turned lawyer. The bright and ambitious Aiken reluctantly agreed initially to serve only as second chair to Sen. Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson from HBOs “John Adams” and “The Ghost Writer”). Johnson felt the trial was unconstitutional and that the government was looking for swift justice to appease a frightened country. After hearing the government’s flimsy case, Aiken became convinced that Mary was guilty only of having given birth to her son John.
The movie opens with the three-pronged attacks on Lincoln, Johnson and Seward. This small dose of action seems frenzied and rushed. The movie bogs down in the courtroom scenes that contain legalese and clichéd dialogue. Although the movie draws attention to the injustice perpetrated on an innocent woman, it is hard to get outraged and feel sympathy toward Mary. This dull, lifeless and underwhelming re-enactment belongs on the History Channel. It will primarily appeal to history buffs and Civil War enthusiasts.
Redford too often relies on natural sunlight to maintain an authentic quality, and this frequently creates a glare in the picture quality. The movie seems much longer than two hours and tighter editing could have easily shortened the running time by 30 minutes. The flashbacks triggered by testimony of the witnesses are haphazard and of little consequence. There seems to be something missing from the screenplay by James D. Solomon. You may feel the need to research history for a more trustworthy account.
The movie deserves strong marks for the authentic costumes and period details. With the exception of Aiken, the rest of the characters are superficially presented and poorly developed. The supporting cast includes Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Justin Long, Danny Huston and James Badge Dale. They are all underutilized.
Redford gets credit for bringing this story to light and drawing thought-provoking parallels to modern times, where the interests of our nation in combating terrorism sometimes outweigh individual rights and civil liberties.
The movie premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. A hasty postscript appears at the conclusion explaining what happened to the major players. It fails to mention that Mary Surratt’s house and tavern in Clinton, Md., are still standing and managed by the Surratt Society as a historic museum.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"