The Conspirator (Blu-ray)
Directed by Robert Redford
The Conspirator is an extremely well-crafted court drama, but it doesn't make an entirely convincing case.
Outside It's America
Mary Surratt with Frederick Aiken
Photo: The American Film Company
The focus of The Conspirator isn't Lincoln's assassination per se. The movie's first 16 minutes cover the 12 days bookmarked by the deaths of both Lincoln and his killer, John Wilkes Booth. The focus here is on Mary Surratt (Robin Wright, Forrest Gump), a boarding house owner who stands trial as a co-conspirator in the plot. A Catholic woman in a Protestant land, Surratt was, in the furor following Lincoln's murder, demonized in a fashion almost akin to the Salem witch trials. At stake: Surratt was in jeopardy of becoming the first woman executed by the federal government.
Enter Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy, Wanted), a Union soldier in the Civil War who reluctantly takes on the task of defending the woman widely perceived as a traitor. He himself leans toward her guilt based on the information floating around among the general public. But his stance starts to turn when Surratt acknowledges she knew of a plot to kidnap Lincoln, not kill him.
From there, flashbacks return to those conspiratorial efforts as Aiken tries to piece together the puzzle as it relates to Surratt's involvement.
The story makes for a fine piece of American history, one worth telling and one with undertones that resonant today. But the presentation misses the mark in rebuilding the conflicting impressions behind the public's hostility toward Surratt, a sentiment which turned to sympathy after her execution, and Surratt's quirkiness, as documented historically, that only helped fuel the public's negative view.
The Lincoln Conspiracy
From the outset, a movie like The Conspirator is a hard sell. It was made on a scant $25 million budget, but every penny is on the screen and in that regard The Conspirator is a remarkable accomplishment. As a smidgen of perspective, The Conspirator's director, Robert Redford, starred in The Natural back in 1984 and that baseball movie carried a $28 million price tag.
Alas, even on that relatively safe budget, The Conspirator's box office intake recouped only half of the expenditures.
The effort certainly deserves a wider audience and the subsequent chatter that should generate.
The cast is top-notch throughout, with Scotsman McAvoy and Englishman Tom Wilkinson (Batman Begins) turning in appealing performances as legal eagles. Wright is also compelling in her portrayal of Surratt, although there's an odd distance to her character that seems to be related to the lack of a concrete understanding of the woman, a lack of understanding that's lost to the onward march of history.
Adding intrigue to the proceedings is an underlying thought that perhaps Redford is looking at the legal questions posed by the Surratt case through the lens of post-9/11 America. When is a trial by peers appropriate as opposed to a trial in a military court? Is a distinction to be made in times of war versus times of peace?
Redford bristles at the thought of these comparisons in his running commentary, but they are certainly intriguing and those parallels fuel history's value as a measuring stick for society today.
The BonusView commentary is a picture-in-picture track in which viewers watch director Robert Redford watch the movie and make comments. This is rather disappointing. Not only are Redford's PIP appearances padded by lots of downtime, Redford also spends far too much time simply regurgitating what is on screen; the valuable aspects of a running commentary, key points of production challenges and concepts, are fairly sparse.
It's revealed co-star Kevin Kline is a friend of Redford's, he even bought Redford's New York apartment. When initially presented with the script, Kline asked if Stanton was supposed to be a Cheney character, in reference to Kline's perception of Vice President Dick Cheney's actions as heavy-handed and villainous. It seems the irony of that comment is lost on Redford, who revisits the thoughts of paralleling history to current events toward the end of the commentary track. He cringes at the notion that critical reaction might focus on those parallels and insists that is not the intent of the film. It's all about the relationship between Aiken and Surratt, he says. Appropriately, Redford also touches on the question of rewriting, or editing, the Constitution, at a couple points, but the thoughts aren't of any depth.
Among the more lighthearted bits, it's revealed James McAvoy is allergic to horses and he speaks with a thick Scottish brogue when off camera (catch a glimpse of it during The Making of The Conspirator featurette). Redford even speaks with an impression of that heavy accent, one of the rare moments in which Redford loosens up and displays his own considerable talent. Granted, Redford does ease up and becomes more interesting as the movie progresses, but more insight was expected of the Hollywood legend.
The track also suffers from quirky, shabby editing. At one point Redford comments, "It's a goddamn nightmare." Then there's a fadeout and when Redford reappears several moments later, the thought is completed, "to live with yourself as an actor sometimes." Those odd editing choices are more glaring when there are patches of Redford speaking while not on screen while other lingering moments show Redford in the PIP sitting stone silent, looking down, away, picking at his face and other stuff one does when otherwise not entirely engaged.
Also exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is a photo gallery, which is actually an 8-minute featurette of production photos and film stills set against the film's score. Included are vintage historical photos compared to the actors and sets used in the film. It's a nice upgrade to the standard assembly of images.
The standard audio commentary is the same audio track associated with the BonusView commentary, sans the bonus view. Given the distracting editing choices noted above in regard to the BonusView, in some respects it's easier to digest the audio-only version.
Director Redford with star McAvoy
Photo: The American Film Company
The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln is a very well done 67-minute documentary about the historical events surrounding the Lincoln assassination. Most striking are the high-def presentations of vintage photographs. The pristine presentation of many of the photos is stunning.
The Making of The Conspirator is a traditional 10-minute collage of behind-the-scenes footage, on-set interviews, and film clips.
The American Film Company is a 51-second commercial for the new production company behind The Conspirator. They're promising a series of theatrical releases based on American history.
Witness History is a 41-minute collection of 10 featurettes from The American Film Company's Web site. As a whole, it provides an informative mix of historical and theatrical information revolving around the themes and people found in The Conspirator.
Also on board are the theatrical trailer and two TV spots, totaling approximately 3 1/2 minutes.
Adding it all up, there's roughly 4 1/4 hours of supplemental material here. The Blu-ray's jacket boasts of five hours, which is hard to justify. If the Redford commentary is double-counted for the BonusView and audio only versions, then it's around 6 1/4 hours. Perhaps all the dead space in the commentary has been removed to create that specious tally; maybe they're including all those forced-view trailers. Oh well. There's no point in making a federal case out of it. The above is presented as evidence, however, that the promoted amount doesn't add up.
Picture and Sound
Overall, the picture (presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio) is servicable, but not exactly a showcase. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel's often light-drenched work becomes a distraction at times; it doesn't quite achieve the same senses-enhancing work found in Caleb Deschanel's exquisite photography on The Natural, which stars Redford.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is well balanced and offers plenty of punch during the opening minutes of action, gunfire, and horseplay. Mark Isham's score is well-served during the remainder of the drama, with the audio track providing atmospherics that tend to be front-heavy on the surround elements.
English is the only audio option. Subtitles are available in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
How to Use This Disc
For those in need of a historical brush-up, check out The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln as a primer, then dive into the feature film. Otherwise, history buffs should also check out that documentary, pre- or post-film being a choice of personal preference.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.