Director: Robert Redford
Cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Justin Long
Evan Rachel Wood, Johnny Simmons, Toby Kebbell
Tom Wilkinson, Norman Reedus, Alexis Bledel
Kevin Kline, Danny Huston
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was undoubtedly one of the seminal events of the nineteenth century and history has made sure that we learn as much about Honest Abe as we can. His life has been the center of books, films and urban legends all of which culminate in the night where he was murdered by actor John Wilkes Booth.
Very few times have we been informed of what came to be afterwards and how one story in particular would shape the way of legal battles up to this very day. That story would be Mary Surratt's, played with fierce serenity by Robin Wright, a woman who was tried for conspiring in the assassination of President Lincoln.
While the story is supposed to concentrate on Surratt, director Robert Redford takes a more didactic approach and centers on her defending lawyer Fredrick Aiken (McAvoy), a Civil War veteran who's appointed by the army to defend someone everyone thinks is guilty.
The film deftly deals with the way in which public opinion can shape the outcome of a trial but more than that it leads us to wonder when and where is it right to bend the law, or if we even should consider doing it at all.
Redford, always the political instructor, makes the film about the way in which the army shattered the law in order to put on a charade to find themselves a scapegoat, Mary's guilt or innocence are never really on trial in the film (anyone watching the movie will think something entirely different) what the movie examines is the inconsistency with which governments provide so-called justice.
Unlike most of the films directed by Redford this one conceals its liberal agenda under a more restrained, almost theatrical style that might appeal those from dissenting political parties, as such it's a movie much more entertaining than say the disastrous Lions for Lambs however in delivering his essay Redofrd has once again forgotten to make his characters human.
He uses them to portray archetypes, we have the heroic Aiken, the villainous prosecutor (Huston) and he even gives Aiken a virginal love interest (Bledel of course) who juxtaposed with Surratt's more vamp-like daughter (none other than Wood) act like the angel and devil figures on the good lawyer's shoulders.
Props should be given to the always fascinating Wright who infuses Mary with a serene knowledge the rest of the film lacks. Redford doesn't give her character much to do but Wright taps into something primal and by the end of the film has evoked maternal love, demonic possession and manipulation with elegance and grace. Watch the way in which she can break your heart by remaining silent or the hatred she can invoke to her eyes. She makes us wish the rest of the movie lived up to her brilliant portrayal.