The assassination of President Lincoln was the outrageous incident that knocked the earth off its axis for 19th century America. The event, in other words, that changed the known universe, much as we had here in the aftermath of 9/11. Similarly, at least as Robert Redford’s new film would have it, the leaders of the country were hell-bent on revenge, and showing the enemy — in this case, the Southern Confederacy — just how ruthless and willing to subjugate the constitution they were in order to exact what they deemed proper justice.
In the aftermath of Lincoln’s murder, many of the conspirators are captured, while the actual assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell), is gunned down while hiding out in a barn. In all, seven men and one woman are charged with the conspiracy. The lone female, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), is a southern widow recently moved to Washington after the death of her husband, who is the owner the boarding house where the conspirators, along with her son, John (Johnny Simmons) made plans to do harm to the president. The thing is, so intent is the U.S. government, lead by War Secretary Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) to try and convict these suspects, they disavow a civil trial and instead hold a ridiculously rigged military court (sound at all familiar?), where the suspects aren’t allowed many of the basic rights afforded to the accused. Into this breach, a young war-hero lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), is forced, quite against his will at first, to defend the widow, whose son is the lone suspect still at large, hidden somewhere in the country.
Redford’s film doesn’t do much to couch its directness: It aims a blow directly at recent government regimes willing to go to almost any lengths to meter out what form of justice it feels the country desperately wants. As such, it’s less character- or plot-driven and more polemically so. The cast is all in fine fettle, though it’s a bit distracting to see so many recognizable faces (including Justin Long, Stephen Root, Tom Wilkinson, James Badge Dale, Colm Meany and Danny Huston) barely disguised under swaths of peculiar facial hair, none more so that McAvoy’s unfortunate and unconvincing beard. As the widow Surratt, Wright is every bit as stoic and honorable as Redford wants you to see her, but the emotional connective tissue between her and Aiken is ill-defined, as is his sudden turnaround from disgusted patriot to constitutional savior. As a work of art, then, the film fails to really engage your spirit; even as the political lesson, as it were, hits one directly between the eyes.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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