Hollywood has always had a strange relationship with history. Borrowing bits and pieces of truth and filling in the rest of the story like a bad contractor has never been above tinsletown’s best. Even Aaron Sorkin is known to have said that he wouldn’t “let truth get in the way of our story,” when referring to the Oscar nominated The Social Network. Leave it to the King of Sundance to make history a priority in his latest film while perhaps proving Sorkin right in the process.
Everyone knows that John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln, but we’re never taught in grade school as to who else was in on it? Could that person get a fair trial? Robert Redford tackles those questions with a nod towards the latest terrorist trials in The Conspirator.
When Lincoln is murdered, a manhunt is on to find the killers. Not only for justice, but also to discourage others from attempting similar acts in a nation barely healing from the scars of the Civil War. Seven men and one woman are charged with conspiring to kill the President, the Secretary of State and the Vice President. The woman charged is the owner of the boarding house where the seven met with John Wilkes Booth. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) is also the mother of the lone conspirator still on the loose, John.
Maryland’s Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) initially takes on Miss Surratt’s case, but soon realizes that he may be more of a liability than no defense at all. He recruits his protege and Civil War hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) to take up the task. Aiken wants this case as much as kids want mayonnaise ice cream and makes his thoughts known to the Senator. Once he gives in, the idealistic young lawyer sets out to prove Surrat’s innocence while learning just how blind justice can be.
Robert Redford teams with The American Film Company for a project better left to the History Channel than the big screen. While the former movie heartthrob and father of Sundance should be commended for telling a forgotten piece of history that has ramifications to this day, a thriller it is not. Although I abhor throwing “creative license” to the wind, Redford’s quest to put substance over style will not keep you on the edge of your seat. The movie moves slowly and methodically with little thought to editing since its 123 minute running time could’ve easily used a 30 minute shave.
The story was written and adapted by James Solomon (The Practice). His attention to detail shines through in the style of the film as well as the many ways that the legal system was given the day off as a military tribunal was able to railroad Mary Surratt in a way that seems almost surreal to a moviegoing audiences raised on fictional legal proceedings. It’s surprising that the former Story Editor of an entertaining show like The Practice couldn’t somehow encourage the director to trim the fat. Closing arguments are kept to a minimum and yet needless flashbacks of the Surratt’s involvement in the conspiracy are convoluted and confusing at best.
McAvoy does a great job as the young counsel who risks his life in the trenches of war only to do the same in the courtroom. His high morals comes at a high price when he begins to lose his status and those around him including his fiance (Alexis Biedel). As Aiken, McAvoy captures the most compelling parts of the story in his direct and indirect battles with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline). When Aiken tells Kline of the injustice of convicting the widow Surrat, Stanton casually brushes him off stating that getting the mother is just as well as getting the son.
Perhaps to add historical context or a last ditch attempt to make the movie interesting, the end titles include what happened to the principals of the story. It’s ironic that a movie that gave so much detail to costumes and dialogue failed to mention that Mary Surratt’s house and tavern are still in existence and listed as a historical museum by the Surratt Society.