I recently read that those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat the 7th grade. Someone ought to have asked director Robert Redford why we are being forced to learn lessons from this, his stiff repetition of Mary Surratt’s tale. Surratt was condemned for aiding and abetting Abraham Lincoln’s assassin and conspirators in a military tribunal; it feels like we are being asked to draw parallels to our current shameful behavior with respect to the alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. But the echoes are faint. Redford’s story of Surratt’s railroading is probably meant to stand alone, and we clearly don’t want our government to suspend its principles or our rights, even when the suspension is intended—however misguidedly—to preserve that union. Well enough.
Except even on that reduced level, much here seems to ring false. Surratt—played with an elegant disdain by Robin Wright—actually was guilty of a seriously treasonous act, conspiring to kidnap the president, by her own admission. And given the trauma of the times—a civil war winding down and a beloved leader slain—it’s not hard to see why the nation would act with swift unthinking vengefulness, no matter how right or wrong it was. When you watch James McAvoy play the attorney Frederick Aiken, dragooned into defending Surratt, and then succumbing to a mild mania on the topic, it seems obvious there is another way of telling the story. The reluctant incompetence of Surratt’s attorney and his political naïveté were likely a big part of the kangaroo process. The film tries to make him look like a tragic hero.
Redford’s drama—and the blaring, melodramatic score by Mark Isham—feels hoked-up. Worse, it frequently feels as flat as an after-school film. Despite fine performances by Danny Huston, Colm Meaney, and Tom Wilkinson, the story feels preachy, though its lessons remain murky. It’s not like we didn’t know America could be arrogantly unjust; this film just doesn’t provide a good example. Redford needs to reread history and find us better lessons before the Gitmo trials unwind.