I surprised myself by finding a James McAvoy film I unintentionally haven’t seen, and was even more surprised to find it actually being pretty good.
Set in the tumultuous period after the American Civil War, the film kicks off with Abraham Lincoln being killed in the theatre by the actor John Wilkes Booth, and the conspirators dispersing. Then, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the mother of one of the alleged conspirators, is arrested along with the perpetrators of the crime and put on trial, unusually in a military court.
After the initial defence by Reverdy Jonson her case is reluctantly taken up by his pupil Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a hero of the Civil War, and newly qualified lawyer. Feeling her guilty of conspiracy, Aiken grills her and her daughter about the boy who is missing, presumed having fled after the assassination, and he works to uncover the truth about her involvement, discovering just how much – or how little – the liberty secured by the Constitution means to the military and most other people involved.
I know next to nothing about this period of US history, and so I can’t comment on anything regarding accuracy. This is based on the true story however, and so I imagine there is fact mixed with creative licence throughout as necessary. I like the atmosphere of the era though, when the US had a uniqueness about it very separate from the rest of the Anglosphere.
James McAvoy is excellent as the young lawyer, ready to begin his career and on the cusp of getting married to his sweetheart. He struggles with his conflict of having returned from a successful war, loyal to his president, ready to start a new successful career, and the burgeoning knowledge that the liberty and rights he stood for are essentially crushed under the military view that all the suspects, including his client, are guilty before being proven so.
Robin Wright especially shines as the Mary Surratt, who will not allow her son to be taken down on the belief he could never plan to murder the president. She is gentle but immovable, and only when she begins to trust Aiken does she reveal further aspects of her son’s involvement in the conspiracy, that he never intended to kill the president, only kidnap him. Her anger at Aiken erupts when he brings her daughter in the fray to testify, with the intention of framing her son as the only way to ensure she is released. Aiken and Surratt eventually gain each other’s respect and trust, for their unwavering devotion to justice and family respectively.
What could be essentially just a historical courtroom drama, has the added extra layer of being so early in America’s development as a westernised nation, and so the freshness of the Constitution still hangs there and hasn’t quite developed into being taken as seriously as it should have been. McAvoy’s lawyer has belief in what the Constitution stands for, to avoid the tyranny of those who would seek to rule over them (everything the war of independence was meant to rebuke, and what liberty truly means after having put his life on the line for it) but comes up against a group of men who do not share the same sentiment and serve as a warning of what can happen when people fail to assert their rights. But his passion to save the life of his client based on what were allegedly universal values eventually makes them take note, and they decide not to execute her. But others, higher up on in the pecking order have other plans and order them to do so anyway. As a last ditch effort, Aiken pulls out a writ of habeas corpus – a staple of the transfer of an extremely important part of the English constitution to the Americas - and manages to get it signed by a judge, so they must release her for a civil jury trial. They don't.
The tragedy of this story is that despite all the correct formalities the arbitrators of tyranny – in this case the new president Lyndon Johnson – overruled the writ of habeas corpus and she was hanged with the other conspirators. The ending sees Aiken sadly give up law and become a journalist, and John Surratt return and be arrested. The bittersweet result was her son being given civil trial with a jury, who could not decide upon his guilt in the matter. He was set free, and it was determined that criminal trials involving civilians would only ever have a jury to decide the outcome from then on.
In the times we live in it would serve all people to understand the scaffold of this story, that is, the reasons for the creation of documentation that protect our natural rights, and why in the fight to remain free and to be treated fairly there will always be a battle against those who wish the opposite.