By: Oberst von Berauscht (Four Beers) –
The trial of Mary Surratt, accused of conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln and 3 other senior members of the executive branch, is told in this period legal drama by acclaimed filmmaker Robert Redford. The film focuses on Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union war hero and prewar attorney who is drafted into the unforgiving role of defending Mary. In spite of his personal biases, Aiken is determined to fight for his client’s constitutional rights. This is made all the more difficult by the decision by the War Department to have her judged before a military tribunal.
Next time, Mecha-Lincoln will be ready
Director Robert Redford has always shown his ability to deliver films with a consistent quality to them. This film is well shot, well acted, and paced like a perfectly good legal/historical drama should be. James McAvoy in particular is excellent as the Union man torn by his wishes to punish the Southern sympathizers and his disdain for his own comrades in arms and the Executive Branch when he sees them exceed their authority.
Unfortunately, the movie never moves much further from being simply “well made” or “tasteful”. Director Redford’s folly in this film (and one that often plagues his other films) is that the film feels like a museum piece. It is packaged nicely for viewing in a middle-school American History class. It covers the incident accurately, but with a few allusions to modern civic issues. A film like this has been done and done to death, only becoming significant when it finds something new and interesting to say on the subject or when it attempts to make a bold statement. The film simply lacks the moral indignation and contempt for authority that would have made it memorable.
This well shot film conceals another flaw, in that the cinematography feels too clean for such an ugly story. The movie could have been saved by a unique approach to the courtroom scenes that highlights the weak position of Surratt and the other internees, I mean prisoners (oh, what a giveaway!) Instead, the straightforward approach leaves nothing to chance, and is more like window-dressing than actual artistic vision.
And as a result of this, the film goes from being simply a well done genre film to an unremarkable one. This is a movie that is best viewed if you need to kill 100 minutes, you like historical drama, and you have memory problems. I guarantee that nobody who watches this film will recall any standout moments. If anybody asks you what you thought of it, you’ll just say “it was okay”, and leave it at that.
In reality though, it’s pretty fucking far from ok.
Sic Transit Gloria Tyrannosaurus!
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a drink: whenever they name-drop a famous Civil War General
Take a drink: for every person who fucks McAvoy over
Down a Shot: whenever there’s a flashback