On April 15, 1865, the 16th president of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln, was shot by John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathiser. The government believed that there were more than one man responsible for the assassination and conducted a swift operation to capture those who were responsible. Captured alongside the group was a lady named Mary Surratt, a Southerner who had a boarding house in Washington, D.C. The house was believed to be the venue where the perpetrators congregated and discussed their plans and Mary was accused of conspiring along with the perpetrators to kill the President. This was the time where paranoia was rampant and when people were consistently asked to confirm their allegiance – whether they supported the winning Union or the Confederate.
The Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton was adamant that ‘justice’ had to be done swiftly, even with the possibility of sacrificing any possibilities of a fair trial. Thrown into this vengeance-seeking situation is a war-hero Colonel Frederick Aiken, who was asked to defend Mary Surratt – even when the outcome of the trial was already formulated and manipulated by the government.
In a typical Robert Redford movie, he rallies against political manipulation (if corruption is too strong a word) and abuse of power in the name of the nation – even when the government have to trample over the constitutions. James McAvoy is convincing in the movie as Frederick Aiken, a cynical defense lawyer who turned into a truth-seeker against the government political machinery. Robin Wright is also excellent in her portrayal of the stoic Mary Surratt. Redford crafts the movie well enough to make the atmosphere tense with the expectation that it is a losing battle to fight against the government, even when truth and justice are at stake. This movie is also highly relevant in today’s environment where everybody is still paranoid about terrorism and where the safety and survival of the nation (whether it is the United States, Australia, or whatever) seems to be a valid reason to surpass the nation’s constitutions.
This is a highly recommended movie for lovers of history and courthouse dramas. It also provides a lot of food for thought for society watchers. It’s just ironic that in nearly 150 years since Lincoln’s assassination, whilst a lot of progress has been made, abuse of power and fear manipulation actually do not change all that much.