Venerable actor and director Robert Redford is well known for his liberal views and decides here to have less than subtle swipe at the post 9/11 and Iraq human rights abuses, authorized or at least tacitly approved, in the wake of the fear of terrorism (Patriot Act).
Redford chooses to focus on the assassination of Lincoln by the actor John Wilkes Booth (Tony Kebbell) and the subsequent trial of his co-conspirators and more importantly, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the lone female “involved”.
Anyone vaguely connected with the conspiracy is quickly rounded up and charged with assorted crimes, the political motivation is clear. Convict quickly in a military court, hand out heavy sentences, execute by hanging and move on. Revenge satisfied, a frightened populace reassured, the civil war well and truly won – balance restored.
As secretary of war Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) declares, “we want to make sure the war stays won”.
Patriotic Union veteran Captain Frederick Allen (James McAvoy) is persuaded to defend Mary after congressman Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is considered unsuitable due to his southern heritage.
The ending is never really in any doubt for those with access to history books or Wikipedia but we should be able to enjoy a historical thriller with obvious parallels to recent events. Courtroom dramas can conjure up thrilling verbal sparring and tense “you can’t handle the truth” like moments.
Unfortunately, Redford has chosen to make a ponderous, clumsy period piece that is filmed in such soft tones as to make some scenes visually difficult to watch. Maybe courtrooms were filled with smoke at the time but do we really that much period authenticity. The earlier courtroom scenes are reminiscent of a poorly acted documentary re-enactment in places, the whole film feels almost entirely stage bound, despite being filmed on location in Savannah Georgia.
James McAvoy, Kevin Kline and Tom Wilkinson deserve some credit for trying hard in difficult circumstances. Robin Wright does the best she can with a character that does little to help herself and who does not invoke much audience sympathy, despite her dire circumstances.
It is difficult to be involved with any of the characters, whilst dressed in period detail and facial hair in place, none of the actors feel believable. Justin Long looks especially out of place with a rather fake looking mustache. The last ten minutes perhaps generates a small head of steam but by then, many of the audience may have left or ceased to care. At least two members of the audience left in this screening.
We should expect better from Redford, the film preaches to the converted and makes no attempt to entertain. There is no point in having a valid message that demands to be heard, if no one is there to listen.
Worthy but rather dull, not recommended