Robert Redford’s latest disappointment takes on the case of Mary Surrat, mother to one of the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination plot and housekeeper/hostess to the rest. It’s A Few Good Scapegoats for Civil War ‘recreators,’ showing how a panicked administration railroaded civilians to the gallows with a speedy military trial. (Though the proceedings against the men go largely unheard.) It does generate a certain dramatic momentum, what courtroom drama doesn’t, but only the parallels to recent legal jurisdiction decisions in the current War-on-Terrorism briefly enliven Redford’s rote presentation. Habeas Corpus be damned . . . and all that. Obvious or not, it's a legit argument, and a deeply compelling one. But everybody in the fine cast steps so carefully around their characters, nodding soberly at all the historical ramifications, that the film rarely churns up much emotion. Only Kevin Kline, chewing a bit of scenery as the self-justifying Secretary Stanton, goes for broke with Robert Bork whiskers & the righteous conceit of a heartless Dick Cheney. Kline adds a gleeful scare in the midst of Redford’s regrettably tasteful proceedings. Even in the sure-fire prologue, where Redford juxtaposes the assassination plot with dressy end-of-the-war-parties, the clarity & vigor needed to jump-start things is missing. And by the end, when Surrat’s son is pointedly not asked about his mother's complicity, we feel gypped.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Samuel Mudd (the doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth) is briefly seen here with the other conspirators, but wasn’t tried with them. John Ford tracked his journey in THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND/’36. Not quite top-drawer Ford, but close enough, even if Mudd’s innocence remains in doubt and the film slanted.