The Conspirator comes with a cost for accuracy, a dwindling pacing that sees a need to pour on doubt, public opinion, and emotional baggage leading up to final days of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). Young attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) has to see it all, the film unrelenting in its pressure and clumsy dialogue.
Robert Redford directs this historical affair, beginning with the night Lincoln was assassinated through the trials of those responsible. Redford’s attempt to conceal a miniscule budget for his period piece with lens filters and impossibly bright, window lit interiors dilutes what appeal Civil War mavens may appreciate.
Despite its gaudy look, Conspirator, as stated by Redford, is about the story no one knows inside the story everyone knows. Surratt is no stranger, although discussions of her eventual conviction are certainly not common in general history classes. That leaves some of the audience diving into the information for the first time, a winding narrative with a classically composed, dramatic, unnerving ending.
Conspirator’s greatest asset is doubt, historians split on Surratt’s guilt or innocence, Aiken as played by McAvoy equally conflicted as he defends her against increasing odds. The film gives her little chance, the military court unwavering in their beliefs and politicians more concerned with public opinion rather than facts.
It avoids swaying either way (although some will see what they want), playing up the mistreatment and injustice angle. This James Solomon script is careful not to cross lines, playing it out as a vintage courtroom and political thriller, frustrating in the extreme as Aiken keeps hitting walls. There’s no lack of trying, and that resilience becomes the heart of the story. It’s a smart, somewhat spaced film that history buffs will undoubtedly absorb despite some reservations.
Lionsgate issues this one to Blu-ray, the first film from American Film Company. Either/or chose VC-1 for this material, a doleful encode afflicted with a barrage of noise across nearly every frame. The intent creates a haze across the image, sometimes suffocating amounts of smoke and absurd levels of light shining through windows. Banding becomes more aggressive with the light, and the smoke creeps in like something more akin to a swarm of compression artifacts. Actually, it is a swarm of artifacting.
Redford overexposes much of the film, producing exaggerated bloom and brutal contrast. The earthy color palette sits mostly in browns and oranges, clearly with the intent to mimic vintage imagery from the era. The few scenes with any sense of natural hues make it feel like the film is actually breathing again.
Black levels carry out their quest dutifully to the point that they’ll sap the image of its integrity. The opening party scene blends guests and main characters together with the background, the military garb of the day losing all sense of fidelity. Shadow detail exists in sections here, not consistently.
With the hazy and somewhat milky quality of the encode, detail is rarely stern, a few adequate close-ups marginalized either through lens effects, digital intermediate tinkering, or the compression of the disc. Thick wool uniforms and hats seem to hate revealing their texture, and only a handful of brief exteriors exist to show off their capabilities.
Conspirator picks up right as the war is ending, meaning you won’t be treated to any tracking cannon fire rocking the sub or muskets popping off. The DTS-HD track doesn’t have to reproduce much then, a few scenes outdoors producing mild ambiance from local wildlife, and horse drawn carriages will travel around the speakers.
Where it matters is inside the courtroom, tense, raucous debates filling the soundfield with a distinctive, immersive echo. The louder the dialogue, the better it sounds, and onlookers respond either gleefully or in horror. The reaction splits the stereos a bit and situates itself in the surrounds regardless. Balance is exquisite and the score (when it makes a rare appearance) has enough energy to impress.
There are two ways to listen to the commentary from Robert Redford, either dialogue only or a somewhat pointless picture-in-picture bit where the camera simply stares at his face. It seems obvious he’s actually falling asleep during the end sequence. The Plot to Kill Lincoln is an hour long factual piece on the assassination and the events leading up to it.
Making of The Conspirator is a brief promo bit on the making of the film, followed by a series of Witness History segments that total 41-minutes. The latter is loaded with behind-the-scenes footage from the film, while historians debate the events. A photo gallery and trailers remain.
One final gripe is a minute long ad for the American Film Company that is forced each time the movie begins. It cannot be fast-forwarded, skipped, or menu’d (?) out of.