In the last days of the American Civil War in Washington, Mary Surratt (played by Robin Wright) is a single mother who runs a boarding house to earn enough to support her family. One night, President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated and the Vice-President and the Secretary of State are both badly wounded. John Wilkes Booth is the identified assassin and the entire city of Washington is doggedly determined to avenge the life of their President with the capture, trial and punishment of those involved. For several days prior to the shooting, Booth is known to have regularly met with his associates (assumed to be planning the shootings) in the city – at the boarding house run by Mary. Booth has since left town, but in the frenzy to find those responsible, several of his associates are arrested and charged with conspiracy to assassinate the President. Because Mary’s son John was one of Booth’s associates (and he has also deserted), Mary is arrested and charged. Captain Frederick Aiken (played by James McAvoy) is a Civil War hero and a recently graduated lawyer. Frederick strongly believes she is guilty, but his boss Reverdy Johnson (by Tom Wilkinson) believes she deserves a fair trial and he appoints Frederick to defend Mary in the military tribunal. As the trial unfolds, Frederick comes to realise two key things; first – that Mary may actually be innocent and second – that the power players in Washington, including Edwin Stanton (by Kevin Kline) will do anything to ensure the military tribunal convicts the prisoners and they be hanged, whether they are guilty or not.
This is a fascinating movie. It is a well made drama and beautifully directed piece of cinematography. The mood consistently brings the tension and futility to the senses and the characters eloquently portray the injustice of the proceedings at every turn. As a bonus, the broader issues bring the true fascination for me … firstly that Frederick Aiken had to accept Mary’s right to a fair trial and put his own beliefs aside to do that successfully; secondly that Mary could be tried as an associate of the guilty party, even though there was a high probability she was not involved; and thirdly that as a result of these proceedings, legislation in the US was introduced to ensure all parties who were arrested for a crime were given the benefit of a fair trial. As with most courtroom dramas, much of the action centres around the politics, legal issues and the determination that justice be served – it is fascinating and enjoyable.
Made in 2010. Directed by Robert Redford