When I went to see this movie I knew nothing about it. The trailer merely indicated a period courtroom drama starring James McAvoy.
While I would hesitate to call it one of the best movies of the year, undoubtedly this movie or more precisely the story this movie relates impacted me more deeply than most do. So much so that I have bought several books on the subject to get as full an understanding of this event as possible.
As an experienced director and actor Robert Redford knows how to push the audiences buttons, making socially relevant, and relatable movies.
Here is a true story of a divided country just arrived at an uneasy peace after a bitter civil war, when recently reinaugurated President Lincoln is suddenly assassinated by an actor in a theater. Not only is the president assassinated, there is a simultaneous attempt to murder the Secretary of State Seward, and Vice President Johnson.
As the manhunt begins for Booth, and his accomplices, suspicions turn to a young known associate John Surratt. Police go to his house, and in his absence end up arresting his mother Mary Surratt for being complicit in the crime of which he is suspected. But is she guilty of being a conspirator, or just guilty of being a mother of an alleged one, an innocent running a boarding house where these conspirators would meet?
She is remanded to be tried in a military court. Frank Aiken, a young veteran of the Union Army, becomes her unwilling counsel. Her rights to a jury trial in a civilian court overruled, one can sense that the odds stacked against her. It's a desperate situation. Her guilt appears to be a foregone conlusion. She is not permitted to testify in her own defencse. Will her son return and save the day? If you're like me these are some of the questions that may run through your mind as you watch this movie.
Other people arrested with her testify for the state implicating her in the conspiracy. These people are not themselves charged. An alcoholic bartender, John Lloyd, very lucky not to be charged himself firmly impicates her with extremely damning uncorroborated testimony. A boarder Louis Weichman testifies that some of the conspirators met at her house on numerous occasions. But if he knew so much how come he did not report his suspicions to the authorities in advance?
Probably most shocking for me was new President Johnson, suspending a writ of habeas corpus written by a judge, on a matter of life and death, a precedent ironically set by Lincoln to be used in wartime, now used to seal the conspirators fates in peacetime.
I found this interference by the executive office in a judicial proceeding to be most surprising and shocking, and difficult to believe, but it turns out to be true. I checked.
For dramatic purposes, some minor but significant facts have been altered. For example, Mary Surratt had two counsel not one. In addition, there were eight people on trial not four. The four not included in the movie were given life sentences, and those surviving would ultimately be pardoned by President Johnson within four years.
One life sentence to Dr Mudd, 'his name is mud,' who treated Booth's fractured leg, and another to Ned Spangler, the stage hand and stable boy asked by Booth to hold his horse, while he went into the theater.
President Johnson famously said of her, "She kept the nest that hatched the egg."
I highly recommend this movie. If you have further interest in this topic I recommend the books American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiraciesand Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer (P.S.), both of which I own, and to a somewhat lesser degree The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln.
Two different people watching this movie could arrive at a totally different conclusion about Mary Surratt's complicity, and I think that's the way Redford would like it, to keep the mystery alive. It kept it alive for me.
I hope you enjoy this movie and I hope this review was helpful.