Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on August 26th, 2011
The American Film Company is a new venture that intends to tell historical dramas. There are several stories on the way. They are particularly interested in the lesser known elements of historical events that are, in themselves, rather huge and universally known. One is left with the kind of film that we saw last year in The King’s Speech. While we all know about the global events of that time, few knew the story of the struggle over public speaking that the King had during that fateful moment in world history. I think you can say the same for the material in The Conspirator. There’s likely not an American alive who doesn’t know something of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. We all know the location was Ford’s Theater and many even know the name of the play that was being performed at the time. But there are lesser known facts about the event. That Lincoln didn’t want to go is one some of you already know. But how many know that his murder was part of a larger plot to take revenge on the government for the defeat of the South? This film goes even farther than that. It tells the story of one of the more controversial accused in the plot that included the attempted murders of the Secretary of State and Vice-President Johnson. That defendant was Mary Surratt, and she would become the first woman executed by the Federal government. And she may not have even been guilty of a crime.
The film begins at the conclusion of the Civil War where we meet Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) who is a wounded captain. He orders the medics to care for his fallen friend, Baker (Long) who appears to be as good as dead. While the scene plays no real role in the story to unfold, it attempts to set two stages. It’s a chance to touch upon the brutal war that has triggered the film’s main events. It’s also intended to help us get to know how good a guy Aikens happens to be. From there the film quickly moves through the execution of the plot to kill three members of the federal government. Only President Lincoln is mortally wounded, and his killer John Wilkes Booth (Kebbell) is soon captured and killed. All that is left for the struggling government now is to put the entire experience behind them by burying the conspirators themselves.
One such conspirator was Mary Surratt, who owned the boarding house where the plot was planned. While her involvement has been open to historical debate, there was no question that her son John (Simmons) was a key conspirator. He successfully fled, and his mother would become the scapegoat for his crimes. She was tried for conspiring to kill President Lincoln and the others.
Enter Aiken, once again. He is forced to take up her defense, mostly because he was a decorated Union soldier and it would be more convincing than if she were defended by a former confederate and possibly perceived sympathizer. He resists at first, but honor makes him take up her cause. Unfortunately, he finds nothing honorable in her prosecution. While Surratt was a civilian, she was tried in a military court with all of the disadvantages of that system. There is no presumption of innocence, and the rules of evidence heavily favor the prosecution. It’s no surprise when she is finally convicted and ultimately sentenced to hang.
The film does an excellent job of building toward the trial which will become its primary focus. We are adequately introduced to the major players, and the production design settles us into the period quite splendidly. The trial takes a predictable course, with the film getting a little heavy-handed in trying to show us the injustice of the procedural. The prejudice is thick and likely over-played here. The questions about accuracy abound, and for a film company that wishes to tell The American Story, there are far too many liberties taken here. It’s rather strange that the film chooses to give us some incredible and accurate detail in some places and completely stray into fiction in others.
The real quality of this film comes from the wonderful set pieces and the selection of a very skilled cast. James McAvoy is perfect as the lawyer who has rather mixed emotions about the whole affair. He never convinces himself either way about Surratt’s guilt but is overcome by the injustice of it all. He pays the predictable social slings for his job. Colm Meany, whom most of us know as Chief O’Brien from his Star Trek days, does a masterful job as David Hunter who is in charge of the courtroom. The last time I saw Danny Huston, he was playing the most vicious vampire I’ve ever seen in 30 Days Of Night. Here he is the JAG officer tasked with the prosecution. It’s quite a nice range Huston displays. Finally, credit has to be given to Robin Wright, who plays the accused Mary Surratt. She underplays it all, which fits in perfectly with Redford’s tone. It makes her look far more sympathetic than even Redford likely intended. The final hanging scene is rather drawn out, but it’s not violent or gratuitous. Redford, correctly, plays out the emotional beats without going too far. If only he had treated the rest of the film that way.
The Conspirator is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 25-30 mbps. There is very little color to be found here. This was an artistic choice to symbolize the darkness of the time and the events being portrayed. It plays in with the period piece and makes for an effective high-definition image presentation. It’s the texture and detail that make up for the colorless palette. The image does a splendid job of showing off the impressive production design. Black levels are solid, and the film offers nice shadows and depth.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is rather minimalistic and that is entirely appropriate. This is mostly a courtroom drama, and the dialog is really what is important here. The score is subtle, and the film is quite quiet on most fronts.
There is an Audio Commentary with Robert Redford. There’s a lot of dead air, and he does have a habit of pontificating. Still, he offers some very good information and explains most of his choices in fine detail.
All in HD
Bonus View: This feature allows you to access various items with Robert Redford as you watch the film.
The Plot To Kill Lincoln: (1:06:03) This is a feature-length documentary on the historical events of the film. It uses a few clips and images from the film itself.
The Making Of The Conspirator: (10:04) This is very much a promotional piece that talks mostly about the characters and the historical aspects of the story.
Featurettes: (41:03) There are 9 in total which cover various story aspects. They are also quite promotional in nature with the company’s flag promo in front of and at the end of each piece.
It doesn’t help that in the commentary Redford destroys his own historical credibility when he goes off on a few rants about Republicans and takes a pretty nasty shot at Dick Cheney. It was unnecessary and revealed a bias that simply can’t be ignored when looking at the film itself. In the end, the film takes a subject that has been hotly debated over the last one hundred and fifty years and paints a very clear picture of one side of the story. This is the company’s debut film, and I’ll be interested to see what direction they take future projects. “I’m trying to understand what you’re doing here.”