3 Stars – Challenging
Mary Surratt was the first woman executed by the United States government and many believe she was innocent. As the owner of the boarding house where the plot to kill President Lincoln was hatched by John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell), the military tribunal of nine northern generals found Mary guilty of joining the conspiracy. Though asking for leniency, the generals’ appeal for life in prison for her was declined as was a subsequent legal stay by her attorneys when President Andrew Johnson decided that she and three others should be hung on July 7, 1865.
Though historians and legal experts disagree concerning Mary’s guilt, it is clear that in the view of her attorney, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a decorated Union officer who served in the war, that she was innocent. Although Aiken went on to become a Supreme Court Justice, (a fact left out of the film), his disgust at the proceedings as well as his love for journalism caused him to leave the legal profession and become editor of the Washington Post.
A helpful background to understand the film is Aiken’s view of her innocence in his obituary of 1878. Dying from war injury complications at the age of 41, his obituary says in part: “When that unfortunate victim of Republican fury, Mrs. Mary Surratt, was dragged from her bed at midnight by the brutal minions of Stanton, and hurried before a court-martial organized to convict, Col. Aiken was one of the gallant few in the District that dared to lift his voice in behalf of justice and right at the imminent risk of his life and nobly undertook to conduct her defense. His defense of Mrs. Surratt is one of the . . . most praiseworthy efforts on record.”
Masterfully directed by Robert Redford and written by James D. Solomon, Robin Wright provides an Oscar-worthy performance as Mary Surratt. A genteel southern woman who was a devout Roman Catholic, Mary struggled after the death of her alcoholic husband to care for her family. Taking in boarders to survive financially during the Civil War, she did not allow her son John (Johnny Simmons) to enlist. But his passion for the cause of the South led him to befriend Booth and invite him into the Surratt boarding house for visits. It is there that the assassination of Lincoln and the attack on Secretary of State William H. Seward and other officials were planned.
The antagonist in this version of history is Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton (Kevin Kline). Resolute in his opinion that Mary and the other conspirators must be executed for the stability of the nation, it is his insistence that brought this about, including the use of a military tribunal rather than a civil court. Less than two years after this execution, Congress passed a law that civilians cannot be tried in a military court.
The fear of a conspiracy is part of the human experience. That there are those who “conspire against us” can cause us to set aside whatever rights they might have and take whatever action we think we need to take to protect ourselves. This was how President Andrew Johnson reacted when he overturned the civil judge’s appeal for a civil trial and said that Mary had “kept the nest that hatched the egg.” Justice requires that we have wisdom in knowing who is and who is not guilty by taking the time to examine the evidence rather than reacting out of fear and jumping to judgment for our self-protection.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. When John Surratt is captured and tried only two years later, the jury could not decide on his guilt and he was set free. However, the timing of Mary’s trial occurring so quickly after Lincoln’s assassination undoubtedly resulted in her conviction and execution. How do you think we can best protect ourselves from vengeance at times when emotions are running high like they were at that time?
2. In several ways Mary indicated that she knew something sinister was being planned in her boarding house. What would you do if your son or daughter was planning a crime in your home?
3. Anna Surratt (Evan Rachel Wood) was asked to choose between protecting her brother and defending her mother. This is an impossible choice. What would you have done if you were in her place?