Robert Redford’s The Conspirator is a historical courtroom drama centering on Mary Suratt (Robin Wright), the sole woman charged in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Of the eight individuals charged, there are serious questions surrounding Surratt; her reluctant defense attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) slowly comes to realize he is fighting a military tribunal that already views her as guilty. Redford, working with a screenplay by James Solomon, can’t seem to light a fire under this historical footnote. At just over two hours, the story isn’t given enough dramatic weight to justify its length.
The American Film Company, which was involved in producing the film, prides itself on presenting historically accurate versions of real life stories. While commendable, the stories they choose to tell must be compelling to work as movies. The issue of Mary Surratt’s involvement, and circumstances surrounding her missing son, provide for a rather threadbare plot. The film works better as a character study of Aiken and Surratt,thanks to strong performances by McAvoy and Wright. McAvoy plays the Civil War hero Aiken as a young man coming to terms with his own conflicted feelings. Wright delivers positively searing work as Surratt, adamant in her denial of guilt.
The supporting cast turns in mostly workmanlike performances, despite the presence of Kevin Kline as Edwin Stanton (Lincoln’s Secretary of War) and Tom Wilkinson as Reverdy Johnson (a Senator who assigns Aiken the task of defending Surratt). Their underwritten characters don’t make much of an impression. In his commentary, Redford characterizes The Conspirator as a lesser known story within a larger known story. That much is true, but it doesn’t mean that it justifies a two hour exploration. It’s a noble effort by all involved, but never really connects on an emotional level.
The Conspirator looks excellent on Blu-ray, with an attractive 1080p high definition image. The color scheme of the film was intentionally bland, so don’t expect anything dazzling in that department. Fine detail is strong, with every fold in the fabric of the period costumes registering clearly. Even with the frequent bright daylight casting an almost soft-focus look over the film, actor’s faces and other details remain clear. Darker scenes, such as underlit courtrooms, do result in occasional little black crush. It’s not a serious problem in this solid visual presentation.
Being a generally quiet film, The Conspirator doesn’t really exhibit a wow factor in the audio department. But the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is strong nonetheless. Dialogue, very important in this sedate film, is crystal clear, whether shouted or whispered. There are a few more action-oriented scenes that provide a nice contrast to the film’s talky nature. The LFE springs to life in these sequences, which includes the assassination sequence. During larger crowd scenes, the rear channels figure prominently in the mix, with a healthy dose of ambiance and other effects. The mix compliments the style of the film just right.
The supplemental features are impressive, never more so than the 67-minute documentary “The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln.” This program is not about the making of the film, but rather a History Channel-style look at the true story of Mary Surratt. It does in just over an hour what Redford’s film couldn’t do in two: it makes Surratt’s story compelling. Historians weigh in and real period photos are shown. All in all, this documentary is much more worth viewing than the bloated movie itself.
Beyond that, we have an intermittently interesting commentary (audio and BonusView) from Redford, forty minutes of “Witness History” featurettes, and a short promotional “making of” piece. If nothing else, be sure to watch the full documentary though. This does more to shed light on an interesting story than the big-budget feature.