This one veers way off the beaten path for the content of this blog but I’m currently taking a Civil War history course to finish out my minor concentration and have sort of found myself immersed in the conflict as I find it mind-bogglingly interesting and certainly pertinent to today’s political climate. Granted we haven’t had any Congressman-on-Congressman violence but our nation is divided in a manner that is evocotive of the later half of the ninteenth century. And so today, on the 146th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death, I went to see a film that depicted the trial of the group of persons charged with conspiring to commit that act.
Lincoln is one of our presidents who seems to get put up on a pedestal as a martyr all these years after his death. He was one of the most influential presidents in United States history and while his contributions to the nation cannot be ignored it is important to note that the man was a politician and in an alternate universe if he thought he could win the war and get a second term of office without freeing the slaves you had better believe the man would have taken that route. The emancipation proclaimation was a wartime effort that he made against the urgings of his cabinet in order to ensure a northern victory in the war. He wasn’t the crusader that time has sometimes made him out to be. My point is not to belittle the actions of Lincoln but to point out the perceptions that surround the actions of a president were as strong in the nineteenth century as they are today. I don’t want to get into a debate about Obama and health care or the budget, but if he were killed tomorrow how would history regard his actions toward universal healthcare? In the case of Lincoln, his actions made him a target of fierce hatred, whatever the intent behind his actions. It was that furor that led to his assassination by John Wilkes Booth. But as the film is quick to remind us, it wasn’t only Lincoln who was targeted for murder on the night of April 14th, 1865 but also his vice president Andrew Johnson and his Secretary of State William H. Seward who was brutally stabbed but fortunately survived with viscious scars that he would bear for the rest of his life.
What follows is the story of U.S. Army Captain/attorney Frederick Aiken taking on the case of Mary Surratt, the mother of John Surratt, a suspected conspirator in the assassination plot who invited John Wilkes Boothe into his mother’s boarding house and therein concocted their plans. Aiken is torn between his loyalty to his country and wanting to see those involved in Lincoln’s death brought to justice and also his intense belief in the rule of law as it pertains to one’s constitutional rights. The deck is so clearly stacked against him as the trial is held as a military tribunal where Surratt is not allowed to speak in her own defense and the witnesses are withheld in secrecy so as to keep Aiken out of the loop. The film portrays Surratt as a bystander whose only connection to the plot was her relation to one of the actual conspirators, and evidence exists in the historical record to indicate that this may have been the case. The production house involved in making the film, The American Film Company, has a track record of trying to make the most historically accurate depictions of their subjects as possible and while I believe that the film was made to make a statement on the suspension of Habeus Corpus as it pertains to Guantanamo detainees and terrorist suspects, the parallels are certainly there in the historical record. Most of the historical inaccuracies come from things that are not clear in either direction, such as the fact to the best of anyone’s knowlege Frederick Aiken was not married but is portrayed as such in the film. Other than that there are only minor grievances to be made, such as the appearance of certain characters not matching their historical counterparts or the fact that the fort where the trial was held didn’t have a moat as depicted in the film.
It’s a fine film, with some strong acting from everyone involved. Except for maybe Justin Long who felt out of place. I like the guy but he just didn’t look at ease anywhere in the frame of the picture. It’s definitely worth watching, both as a matter of historical record and as a piece of entertainment as it truly is one of the better courtroom films I’ve seen recently as well.