November 21, 2011 -- In the aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 there was a rush to judgement and a desire to get the whole matter over and done with. The rule of law was bypassed and military tribunals were arranged to deal with the conspirators who planned and carried out the assassination of Lincoln and the attempted assassination of United States Secretary of State William H. Seward. Vice President Andrew Johnson was also a target of the assassins, but the assassin, George Andreas Atzerodt, lost his nerve and didn't go through with it. This film tells the story of Mary Surratt, one of those accused of the conspiracy.
Surratt (played by Robin Wright of “State of Play”) maintained her innocence to the end, but the cards were stacked against her. The rules of the military tribunal in which all the alleged conspirators were tried were one-sided. The defendants were not allowed to take the stand to testify on their own behalf. The defense attorneys were not allowed to know in advance who would be testifying for the prosecution. The film also makes the argument that some unsavory deals were made by prosecutors to sway testimony in return for other conspirators getting immunity from prosecution. That sort of thing, of course, still happens.
This whole episode in American history has a close parallel with the military tribunals held to convict alleged terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks. There have also been many other similar abuses of power in the name of national security: President Andrew Johnson ignoring the Supreme Court ruling of Worcester vs. Georgia, allowing Cherokee lands in Georgia to be stolen, the Alien and Sedition Acts during World War I, the illegal imprisonment of Americans by the government during WWII, blacklisting and other abuses of civil liberties during the Red Scares of the 1940s and 1950s, right down to the current abuses of the rights of Hispanic Americans and other minorities, including outright disenfranchisement for political gain.
The question of whether Mary Surratt was guilty or not guilty of the charges against her is not answered in the film, and indeed, the historical record is not clear on this. She seems innocent enough in the film, but the real point of the film is that she did not get a fair trial. Her attorney, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy of “The Last Station”) a Civil War Union hero, very reluctantly takes the case, even though he believes Surratt to be guilty. He gradually changes his opinion of Surratt as the case wears on. McAvoy gives a great performance in this film, going through a full range of emotions. The stronger his advocacy for his client, the more he was shunned by Washington society. In an interesting footnote at the end of the film, Aiken went on to become the first city editor of the Washington Post.
While the film is pretty heavy-handed in framing the story in political terms, it is a compelling drama that will be news to many Americans. The film is loaded with acting talent, including a bearded Kevin Kline, who plays the powerful, manipulative War Secretary Edwin Stanton, Tom Wilkinson, who plays Congressman Reverdy Johnson and Evan Rachel Wood who plays Mary Surratt's daughter, Anna. There is a bit of surprise at the ending, unless you know your history really well, then it would be no surprise at all. This film rates a B.
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