After the President is murdered in 1865, inexperienced lawyer Frederick (McAvoy) is assigned to defend Mary Surratt (Wright), who is charged with conspiracy alongside eight others. As a war hero from the North, Frederick is horrified to get this job, but is convinced by his boss (Wilkinson) that she at least deserves a fair trial. Of course, in the hysteria following the war and assassination, that's not likely. The judge (Meaney) clearly takes sides, the prosecutor (Huston) is relentlessly arrogant and the war secretary (Kline) has already decided on a verdict and sentence.
The film lays out its present-day relevance early with comments about "suspending the Constitution" in times of war, scapegoats to assuage the public, and government and media propaganda that makes sure everyone in the country believes the accused is guilty before any evidence has been presented.
Frederick gets the brunt of this prejudice, so of course his girlfriend (Bledel) and closest friends (Long and Dale) doubt his loyalties.
While this helps the story's themes resonate more strongly, it's done rather heavy-handedly. And Redford directs the film as if he was shooting it through clouds of dust. In other words, it couldn't be much more worthy if it tried, and often feels dry and over-serious, with rare moments of levity or earthiness that feel forced and sometimes anachronistic. Instead, lofty speeches abound as Frederick points out the injustice of this wartime system. Mary even offers a key point, noting that her accusers are "so blind with hatred that they can't see the truth".
Fortunately, the cast members give the characters life beyond the history lesson. McAvoy is extremely sympathetic as the young guy standing up for principles against the current of popular opinion. Wright commands the screen with her raw intelligence. And the supporting cast includes fine work across the board, never letting the characters get lost in their stirring dialog and impeccably tailored period costumes.
Run time: 122 mins
In Theaters: Friday 15th April 2011
Box Office USA: $11.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $11.5M
Distributed by: Roadside Attractions
Production compaines: American Film Company
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 55%
Fresh: 93 Rotten: 75
IMDB: 7.0 / 10
Director: Robert Redford
Screenwriter: James D. Solomon
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood as Anna Surratt, James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, Kevin Kline as Edwin Stanton, Robin Wright as Mary Surratt, Alexis Bledel as Sarah Weston, Justin Long as Nicholas Baker, Tom Wilkinson as Reverdy Johnson, Norman Reedus as Lewis Payne, Toby Kebbell as John Wilkes Booth, Jonathan Groff as Louis Weichmann, Danny Huston as Joseph Holt, Stephen Root as John Lloyd, Johnny Simmons as John Surratt, James Badge Dale as William Hamilton, Colm Meaney as David Hunter, Shea Whigham as Capt. Cottingham, Chris Bauer as Major Smith, Gerald Bestrom as Abraham Lincoln