On 14th April 1865, John Wilkes Booth walked up behind Abraham Lincoln in his box at Ford’s Theatre and shot him. As this film’s tagline testifies however, although one man shot Lincoln, more than one man killed him. Booth and his accomplices were pursued and for the most part found and arrested, though Booth himself was shot rather than being brought in to stand trial. Booth and many of his co-conspirators met on occasion before the assassination at a guest house owned and run by Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). Her son John is nowhere to be found and so she is tried by a military court as a conspirator in the assassination. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a lawyer and soldier who fought for the Union in the US Civil War is assigned to Mary’s defence and despite his initial reluctance to defend her, eventually comes to see the unconstitutional manner in which the trial is being conducted and resolves to defend Mary to the best of his ability.


Despite the seemingly hint-laden title, this film is not really about conspiracies or outlandish conspiracy theories at all. There are none of the JFK-style attempts to peel back the layers of corruption and complicity, rather a fairly straight telling of an altogether compelling story about justice, the rule of law and the US constitution, with a clear and no doubt utterly intentional resonance with recent events in relation to terror-suspects, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. As the conflicted defence attorney, James McAvoy does an excellent job of transitioning through the gears from disgust and indifference, through vehemence and indignation to desperation and even heroism. He quickly realises that whatever Mary Surratt might or might not be guilty of, she deserves but is patently not receiving a fair trial. His antipathy towards her grows convincingly into staunch advocacy for her rights, picking holes in contradictory and unconvincing prosecution evidence, despite his objections and best efforts being thwarted at every turn by the ridiculously biased (but no doubt historically accurate) David Hunter, who presided over the trial of a civilian in full military regalia.

At one point, driven incandescent with frustration at the injustice of the proceedings, Aiken bellows at the court, “it’s not enough is it?” Every witness has been cajoled, threatened and intimidated, every objection by him dismissed, every objection by the prosecutor upheld. It is to McAvoy’s credit that it does not feel like an explosion out of nothing, rather a simmering fury that builds to the point of eruption.

Kevin Kline and Tom Wilkinson make welcome appearances as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and US Senator Reverdy Johnson respectively, butting heads constantly over the importance of a fair trial versus the crucial point of maintaining the peace and the fragile integrity of the only-just United States. As Stanton says (and with particular post-9/11 resonance), “the world has changed”, to which Johnson retorts, “but the Constitution must not be sacrificed”. Director Robert Redford subtly, but deftly draws attention to the manifold ways in which civil liberties and constitutional principles have been sacrificed on the altar of the “war on terror” and how our desperation to preserve our way of life can cause us to cast aside some of our hitherto most cherished principles. Stanton is not cast as the villain of the piece by any means – the film wisely portrays its various characters in realistic shades of grey – showing him instead to be a desperate and driven man, but not a malevolent one, merely as conflicted and flawed as any of us.

As the many excellent features show, a lot of care and thought has gone into recreating the era of the trial, with lighting, street scenes, clothing and cityscapes all thoroughly up to scratch. Redford was clearly operating on a modest budget, but the film never looks or feels cheap or half-baked. Instead, something fascinating, informative, intellectually stimulating and politically relevant and resonant has been crafted and it is a considerable shame that the film found less of an audience ($11.5m in the US to date against a $25m budget) and received less of a warm critical reception when it first hit the screens (at least here in the UK) that it seems to have deserved.

Despite the grand, sweeping themes, the running time is relatively tight, coming in at just under two hours (though a few more minutes off that would have helped the film feel a little brisker) and as alluded to earlier, the parallels drawn within James D Solomon and Gregory Bernstein’s script between the events portrayed and those of the past decade are tactfully handled rather than being hammered home.

This is well worth a watch and perhaps is better suited to and will find more of a home on the small(er) screen. You can buy it on DVD or Bluray here.



  • Short featurettes by the American Film Society titled “Witness History” on everything from production design, to the defendant’s Catholic beliefs, costume design, props, military trials and a couple of the main characters from the story. Informative.
  • Making Of Documentary with contributions from Robert Redford. Brief but interesting
  • Director’s Commentary. At times Redford has much to say about the quality of the cast, the apparent ease with which British actors find US accents and the challenges of creating an authentic period feel for the film. At other times he falls silent for minutes at a time when it would be nice to hear a bit more from him. Perhaps a two- or three-hander would have helped fill that empty space a little?
  • Photo Gallery


Additional Bluray Extras (not available for review)

  • Picture-in-Picture commentary
  • Plot to kill Lincoln documentary
  • Theatrical Trailer

[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LzovRI4zig’]

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Dave has been writing for HeyUGuys since mid-2010 and has found them to be the most intelligent, friendly, erudite and insightful bunch of film fans you could hope to work with. He's gone from ham-fisted attempts at writing the news to interviewing Lawrence Bender, Renny Harlin and Julian Glover, to writing articles about things he loves that people have actually read. He has fairly broad tastes as far as films are concerned, though given the choice he's likely to go for Con Air over Battleship Potemkin most days. He's pretty sure that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the most overrated mess in cinematic history.