You shall not pervert the justice due to your
poor in their lawsuits. Keep far from a false
charge, and do not kill the innocent and those
in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Robert Redford’s latest directorial venture takes us back to the fateful time surrounding the murder of President Lincoln and the trail of the conspirators. Although there is no doubt of the guilt of the other conspirators (one of whom is her son John who has fled to Canada), who met at the boarding house she operated in Washington, there was and still is, controversy over whether Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) was so deeply implicated as to deserve the death sentence. (Dr. Mudd, one of the defendants was found guilty, but he was sentenced to prison, and later set free.) Mr. Redford and his scriptwriters take the side of those favoring the belief that her sentencing was influenced by the climate of fear that clouded the nation at the time, very similar to what happened to us after the tragedy of 9/11. (More on this later.)
When Mary Surratt is arrested Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), the senator from Maryland who was influential in keeping his pro-slavery state in the Union, is appointed to defend her. However, for various reasons he believes that his involvement will prejudice the military tribune’s against her, so he asks Captain Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a decorated war hero and a novice lawyer to take over her defense. Frederick is opposed at first because he shares the belief of the angry public that she is guilty of the heinous deed. The Senator argues that even if she is, she still deserves a strong defense—and that our system does maintain that a person is innocent until proven beyond a doubt that she is guilty. It is also pointed out that the real reason for trying Mary is in order to induce her fugitive son to give himself up.
Against his will, and to the consternation of his friends and his girlfriend Sarah (Alexis Bledel), Frederick agrees to represent Mary. During his investigation, he becomes acquainted with Mary’s daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), and finds a piece of evidence at the boarding house that trips up a prosecution witness. The lawyer’s hardened heart softens as doubts as to her guilt arise in his mind. He finally manages to break through her defense to learn that she was aware of an earlier plot to kidnap the President and use him as a hostage in order to free a large number of Confederate prisoners, but she stoutly maintains that she did not plot to kill the President. She was definitely pro-Confederate, her son John serving as a courier traveling back and forth between Washington and the Confederacy with information and messages. But she could not plot to kill a man, which her daughter Anna also maintains.
As Frederick mounts an attack on the credibility of witnesses, he feels hamstrung at times by the arbitrary decisions made by the head of the military court in favor of the prosecution. He also comes under strong pressure from friends, from Sarah, and above all, from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (Kevin Kline) who has in effect taken over the running of the government, the new President Johnson being such a weak leader. Stanton wants the case decided quickly, and with a foregone conclusion of a guilty verdict, because he fears a new outbreak of the War. It this latter that leads us to note the relevancy of the case today, in more ways than one.
We have begun the commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of everything related to the Civil War, including Lincoln’s murder and of this trial. In a telling scene between Senator Johnson and Stanton the Senator comments on the climate of fear to which Stanton is contributing and using to declare Mary guilty. We see news headlines of Stanton’s comments to the press and from his speeches about his fear of new violence and uncertainty threatening the Union. We cannot help but think of how fear has been used by politicians ever since the attack on the Twin Towers in order to garner public support. The Senator earlier had voiced objections to the conspirators being tried by a military rather than a civil court, which still is debated, Congress even denying funds for the trial of the 9/11 conspirators to be held in a civil court in New York City. The film, in its epilogue, specifically mentions that shortly after the trial the US Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional for civilians to be tried by the military. Thus once again we see that a film dealing with history is as much about today’s events as the ones it depicts in a long ago time.
1. What do you think of Sec. Stanton’s and the tribunal’s “rush to judgment” ? In what ways do we see that Frederick is playing against a stacked deck at the trial?
2. What do you think of the basic tenant that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty? And also the part left out, “by a jury of his/her peers.” Does Mary have any peers sitting on the tribunal?
3. Another basic tenant of our legal system is that even if the accused are guilty, they still deserve a strong defense? How is this often hard to accept? (Note an interesting fact not included in the film is that Senator Reverdy Johnson, despite his anti-slavery views, had represented the slave owner in the famous Dred Scott case, mounting a strong case for him.)
4. Mary quotes from the Psalm when she meets Frederick. How does her faith and the priests help sustain her during her ordeal?
5. How pertinent do you believe that the Torah quote is? How important is it for those in our legal system to keep this in mind? What is Sec. Stanton’s reason for circumventing the commandment? Do you think this over-rides the commandment? How is this similar to the use of “national security” for politicians’ acts that “normally” would be considered wrong? Think of any examples?
6. Where do you see God at work in this story?