This is the story about the group of men and women who conspired with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Lincoln. A young man Frederick Aiken (played by James McAvoy) returns back to Washington, D.C. after fighting in the Civil War on the Union side. He leaves the military to be a civilian lawyer once again, like he was before the war. He is befriended by a Senator from Virginia, Reverdy Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) who is also an attorney. The Senator asks him to defend a woman who is accused of conspiring, to kill President Lincoln, with John Wilkes Booth and other men who have been captured and are being held in jail. The woman Mary Sarratt (played by Robin Wright holds steadfast to her innocence, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. She ran a boarding house where all the conspirators where know to frequent and was observed holding secret meetings. Since Booth is dead, having been shot while being hunted, the only one who can give credence to her claim is her son John Surrat (played by Johnny Simmons) who has not yet been captured. She knows where he is, but will not turn him in just to save herself.
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She confesses to her attorney, she was part of the conspiracy to kidnap President Lincoln in order to exchange him for prisoners of war from the South, still incarcerated, but she had no part in the conspiracy to kill the President which is the crime she is accused of doing. The trial is a military trial, rigged so she has no chance to mount an adequate defense. Her young lawyer tries his best to defend her under the circumstances. He is harassed by his peers and he loses his fiancée in the process. Everyone wants the trial to result in conviction of all the parties involved, including the woman.
The morality of the case is the lack of application of constitutional law. The lawyer fights for a fair trial for the woman, not expecting to win, but trying his best to get her life imprisonment and to keep her from being hanged. But, in the chaotic environment during the aftermath of the Civil War, vengeance overrules reason. She is tried and hanged, convicted of guilt by association, which is a tragedy.
Many months after her death by hanging, her son is caught. He gets a civil trial, not a military one, and is not able to be convicted by a jury of his peers. It is a bittersweet ending because it is certain his mother was far less guilty of conspiracy than he was.
Best part of story, including ending:
This is a great period piece that brings to light a new element in the otherwise very familiar historical event of the assassination of President Lincoln.
Best scene in story:
I like the scene where the woman admits to what actually happened which is bad but truthful, and certainly not the crime which with she has been charged. She is an honest woman, fighting for a cause that she describes is “bigger than herself.”
Opinion about the main character:
The conversion of the young lawyer from a person, who finds the woman and her actions reprehensible, into a person who learns the truth and can see the bigger picture of the moral and legal dilemma is very well achieved by this film.