Friday, August 26, 2011

The Conspirator Blu-ray Review

Venture behind the true story of one of the world’s most famous assassinations as Oscar-winning director Robert Redford (Best Director, Ordinary People, 1980) gives viewers a front-row seat in the thrilling courtroom battle waged against Mary Surratt (Golden Globe nominee Robin Wright), the only female charged in the murder of President Abraham Lincoln.  The film costars Golden Globe nominee James McAvoy as the attorney who reluctantly takes on Surratt’s defense, and who becomes her biggest ally as government forces align to bring her down.  Featuring an all-star supporting cast including Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda), Danny Huston (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Evan Rachel Wood (HBO’s “True Blood”), Justin Long (Going the Distance) and two-time Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson, The Conspirator is now available on this Deluxe Edition Blu-ray.

Film (4 out of 5 stars)

The Conspirator tells the true story of the events that followed the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln that most people aren’t completely aware of.  The movie opens on a battlefield where we see the aftermath of one of the battles that occurred at the end of the Civil War.  Amongst the dead, lie two wounded Union soldiers, including Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) and his friend Nicholas Baker (Justin Long).  On the surface, this may seem like a superfluous scene but it actually establishes a couple of things.  One is that it provides a  glimpse of a war that cost more American lives than any other war (which is still true today), and it also establishes the noble character of Aiken who orders rescuers to save his friend first.

The film jumps ahead in time and Aiken is now an up and coming lawyer who is well regarded by the upper class society who appreciates his military service and accomplishments.  While at a dinner party, the guests learn that the President has been shot and they witness his body being taken from Ford’s Theater to a house across the street.  It’s not long before the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) arrives to take charge and attempt to restore order.  He mobilizes forces to hunt down the killer and his accomplices and shuts down the streets to cut off their escape.

It isn’t long before Lincoln’s killer and his accomplices are either killed or captured by Union forces and the survivors are forced to stand trial.  It’s soon discovered that the conspirators plotted at first to kidnap the President and when that fell through, went forward with a plot to kill him.  Unfortunately for Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the plans were made at her boarding-house and she is rounded up along with the other accomplices to face the death penalty for treason.

Mary Surratt’s original lawyer is the principled Senator from Maryland Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) but he removes himself as her lawyer since he believes he will do more harm than good for her case because of his state’s southern leanings.  He asks Aiken to take over the cast which Aiken reluctantly does as he believes that Mary is as guilty as the others.  Despite his misgivings, Aiken does the best he can to represent her and discovers that Stanten and the court system are determined to do whatever it takes to get a guilty conviction and to see the prisoners hang.

Aiken’s mounting desire to combat the illegal maneuvers that Stanton and the Federal prosecutor Joe Holt (Danny Huston) ends up costing him quite a bit personally.  He loses his girlfriend, his membership to a social club, and he becomes a pariah amongst the townspeople.  Only his closest friends Baker and Hamilton (James Badge Dale) remain by his side during the trial.  With the might of the political machinery of the United States against him, Aiken must fight for his client against a pre-ordained fate.

I enjoyed The Conspirator but I also have a great appreciation for history.  The movie’s authenticity added a lot but I can understand why a lot of people may be turned off by the film’s pace.  Robert Redford is an excellent director who’ve I’ve long admired as both an actor as a director.  I can see what interested him in this movie, with it’s similarities to modern events such as a government’s attempt to try civilians in a military court and how power can be abused in the pursuit of justice.

Redford assembled a great cast for this film, led by McAvoy who had a great year between this and X-Men – First Class.  Kevin Kline is fantastic in his role as an well intentioned man who will subvert justice itself in order to achieve his own twisted sense of justice.  Wright, Huston, Wood, and Wilkinson perform their roles with their customary excellence and I also really appreciated how the pre-electric atmosphere was captured for the film.

Video (4 out of 5 stars)

The film’s 1080p (2.35:1) transfer looks great despite being deliberately desaturated and filmed in low light.  Redford wanted the film to be historically accurate so the entire film is lit by either sunlight, candles, oil lamps, or torches which provides some great atmosphere but leaves the film looking quite dark.  Some may not appreciate this artistic choice, but I felt it added a lot to the film.  Despite the low light, there’s some great detail evident and the black levels are thankfully as dark and deep as they should be.  This is a fine transfer that looks great even handicapped as it is by creative decisions.

Audio (4 out of 5 stars)

The Conspirator’s lossless DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also very effective despite being a historical film filled with dialogue.  The film gets a couple of chances to show off what it can do with scenes like the opening Civil War battle or during the crowd scenes following the President being shot where the citizens are filled with anxiety and work themselves up into a frenzy.  Dialogue is always clear and easy to understand and the music by Mark Isham is nicely integrated with the rest of the dialogue and effects.

Special Features (5 out of 5 stars)

Even if you don’t care for the movie, these extras might entice you to keep the disc anyway.  This disc is loaded with a ton of HD extras that will keep you busy for over five hours!
  • Commentary by Director Robert Redford – You have the option of listening to this like a traditional audio commentary or you can see the Picture in Picture version of Redford that I preferred.  He doesn’t talk nonstop but when he does it’s always interesting.
  • The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln – An hour long look into the actual historical events that the film is based on.  I thought this was really interesting and it offers some unknown facts that weren’t included in the film.  This documentary is very reminiscent of History Channel documentaries.
  • The American Film Company – While I respect their dedicated efforts to make historically accurate films, it was bad enough that I had to sit through their promo piece on themselves before the movie started only to see it again as an extra. That’s kind of overkill and extremely unnecessary.
  • The Making of The Conspirator – A traditional EPK fluff piece that includes the cast and crew and lasts about ten minutes.
  • Witness History: Introduction – This intro provides the entry point for a bunch of quality mini featurettes that focus on the different aspects of the movie including:
    • The Conspiracy – A look into the events of the conspiracy including comments by historian Thomas R. Turner.
    • Production Design – A talk with the film’s Production Designer Kalina Ivanov and her efforts to make everything historically accurate.
    • Mary Surratt’s Catholicism – A look into how Surratt’s faith played a role in her verdict and the public opinion of the time.
    • Costume DesignThe Conspirator‘s costume designers Richard Schoen and Louise Frogley talk about how they recreated authentic clothes of the era .
    • Military Trial – A look into military tribunals and what they entailed.
    • Props and Special Effects – Prop Master John Bankston shows off his historically accurate props and discusses the effects in the film.
    • Frederick Aiken – Defense Lawyer – A look into the life of the attorney who sacrificed a lot personally to represent Surratt.
    • Mary Surratt: Guilty or Innocent – A discussion with historians on whether or not she was guilty or not.  It seems that most feel that she was guilty of conspiracy because at the very least she knew something was about to happen and didn’t report it.
    • Sentence and Execution – A look into the aftermath of the verdict and the conspirator’s execution.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • TV Spots
  • Photo Gallery

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars)

If you are interested in a historically accurate film that tells the story of one aspect of the Lincoln assassination that most of the public isn’t aware of, then this is your film.  Well directed, and filled with great performances, this film offers something intelligent for audiences to watch in between a lot of the dreck currently being pushed out by studios.  This is another fine directorial effort by Robert Redford!

Order your copy today!

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