Director/actor Robert Redford's latest directorial project was given a full-blown Hollywood-type DC premier at the glorious Ford's Theater-complete with every major cast member, Redford, the producers, and over a hundred DC politicians and notables. (Red carpet photo coverage provided after this review.) And what better place to hold the event than the site of Lincoln's 1865 assassination-and within days of the 146th anniversary of this American tragedy.
The first film by the newly formed American Film Company (which had its world premier at Toronto), headed by Joe Ricetts, former CEO and former chairman of TD Ameritrade, is a fine example of the type of film this company is dedicated to producing: an historically accurate account that, in this case, took several years to research. The good news is that you will not see typical Hollywood made up characters or drama. Unfortunately, the drama tends towards the PBS' Masterpiece Theater-type stilted presentation-that might have trouble appealing to the general masses used to being spoon-fed their entertainment.
That being said, this beautifully rendered film is worth seeing on many levels. Many historical films tend to be ignored by the public due to relevancy. However, this film deals with subject matter that is startling in its present-day connection as this country constantly strives and struggles to be democratic and protect the inalienable rights & due process of its citizens throughout its history. In addition, there are several character parallels to some very well known present day politicians that you undoubtedly will recognize.
The film opens on a Civil War battlefield as two wounded Union soldiers are laying side-by-side. As one comforts the other who is struggling to survive, the medics arrive and when they attempt to take care of the less wounded soldier, he immediately directs them to his companion-risking his own survival. Switch to the night of April 14th, where the decorated soldier, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy-best known in the wonderful films 2006's "Last King of Scotland" & 2007's "Atonement") is a fresh-faced lawyer networking at a highfalutin party. He is disappointed when told that The President would not be attending because his wife would rather attend the play at Ford's that evening.
The action quickly depicts a series of coordinated political hits targeting, not only Lincoln but also Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson who survived the attacks. Maryland senator Reverdy Johnson (the great Tom Wilkinson) persuades the young attorney to undertake the unenviable task of defending Mary Surratt (the excellent Robin Wright)-mother to one of the conspirators who had escaped capture. We quickly learn she was rounded up in a feverish rush to judgment as the owner of the boarding house where the conspirators met and planned the attacks. Aikens initially expresses disgust in having to defend someone who surely was guilty. But as the film progresses, he begins to think that not only could she be innocent but, more importantly, that her rights to a fair trial in front of her peers were clearly being denied and prevented by army generals determining her fate.
Screenwriter James Solomon (who took 16 years to perfect the wonderful script) makes Mary's innocence or guilt ambiguous while placing due emphasis on the political climate and legal shortcuts undertaken while a nation was struggling to recover from the devastation of the just concluded Civil War. Presenting essentially a courtroom drama, the film does, however, unequivocally depict the legal injustice done to Mary, the first convicted woman hanged in the U.S.
The film is given a top-notch stellar look by veteran cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (Savannah, Georgia is the DC stand in) while Mark Isham's score perfectly complements.
My only main gripe is that I wished more background information about Mary had been forthcoming. Despite being the principal focus, it is surprising how much of her character is maintained in the background and shrouded in mystery. That being said, if you are a history buff, this is a film for your must-see list.
Webster Stone, one of the producers, remarked to me after the screening that The American Film Company was so intent on historical accuracy that they encountered a curious dilemma after their research team discovered that clothing fashions in 1865 tended toward a palette of bright colors. However, they made a command decision to mute the fashions thinking that today's audiences would have trouble believing bright garb were the true fashion of that era. He also remarked that the subject of their next film project is Paul Revere.