By William Wolf


American history has had its share of injustices, one of which appears to be the wrongful hanging of Mary Surratt as an alleged conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From a screenplay by James Solomon, Redford has directed a drama harking back to the event. He has wisely approached the subject with solemnity, giving it weight by not succumbing to any temptation for pumped up melodrama. The meticulous telling of the story that bears its own suspense succeeds artistically and as a dip into history. With Robin Wright giving a convincing portrait as the woman tried, condemned and executed, the film has intrinsic power.

Surratt ran the boarding house where the conspirators, including her son, met, the film informs us. But there is no evidence that she knew anything about what the assassins, including John Wilkes Booth, were up to. Although a civilian she was tried by a military court in an atmosphere in which revenge for the murder of Lincoln was the overriding mood. Furthermore, the film reveals that the military tribunal had at first voted against the death penalty, but then succumbed to pressure from above to change the decision and impose the penalty of hanging. The one way she might avoid the gallows is by telling the location of her son, who is in hiding. Her son might also save his mother by coming forward to reveal that she had nothing to do with the conspiracy. He doesn’t.

Tension builds amid preparation for the execution. James McAvoy has a pivotal role as Frederick Aiken, the young, inexperienced lawyer given the case to handle by his mentor, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a former Attorney General. Aiken fights hard to save Surratt’s life, but Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) and others feel it is more important to show no mercy and get the case behind the country, partly to assuage anger, but also to help stamp out any residue of Southern holdouts from the Civil War.

Redford succeeds in keeping the drama taut while also giving us a strong sense of period through location, costuming and the general atmosphere he creates by attention to detail. While all of this is history, the execution of a woman, the first ever by the federal government, may make one think of the fight to save the life of Ethel Rosenberg in the 1950s on the disputed charge of conspiracy to commit espionage. Her brother has since admitted false testimony against her, and while her husband Julius apparently committed some level of espionage, it is recognized that there was no proof against Ethel, who was basically arrested and charged to pressure her husband to confess.

Just as the film shows higher ups pressuring to go through with Surratt’s execution, the U.S. Supreme Court, after adjourning for the summer, was called back into special session under pressure to reverse a stay of execution that had been granted by Justice William O. Douglas, and Ethel Rosenberg was electrocuted, along with her husband, the same night a the reversal was ordered.

History has a way of making us think beyond events depicted.


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