The Conspirator is a film that is very sure of its genre placement, and takes great pride in it. Alongside such films as Spielberg’s Amistad, and Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Robert Redford‘s The Conspirator is a film that finds a big name in the director’s chair, putting out a movie that is ultimately rather boring, and falls flat on a variety of film-making fronts. Part of the genre’s creed is that the negatives are meant to be overlooked, because the film is historical, to one degree or another.
On the other hand, from the perspective of simply a tale from history with a bit of entertainment value thrown in, The Conspirator is very likely a winner. That is, serious history buffs are likely to enjoy the ride (though the special features on the Blu-Ray release are worth even more), but if you’re looking for a film, you may well be disappointed.
It’s the story of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the only female charged as a co-conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination, and her lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). Aiken is forced into the job of presenting her defense, and not only does he not want the job, he’s on board with the world at large, and their idea that, basically, the fact that she was accused means she ought to hang. Naturally, he is won over as time goes on, not necessarily to believing that she is innocent, but to the idea that she isn’t being given anything remotely like a fair trial.
As we make our way through the trial, a military affair by the way (this being the case that moved the Supreme Court to rule that citizens could not be tried by military courts), Aiken finds himself taking the public heat as much as anyone, even to the point that his fiancee (Alexis Bledel) decides she can’t see him anymore.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) wants Surratt hanged, and he’s going to make sure it happens, no matter what it takes. There is some indication that the powers that be are only venting their frustration at Mary, because her son is the one conspirator they had their sights set on who escaped, but before long it wouldn’t matter if he turned himself in or not. Stanton wants her hanged for the spin, and now that he’s whipped up that frenzy, there’s no going back.
While the historic aspects of the film are intriguing, there is very little meat to the film. This is another in a long line of historical films that put forward the idea that at any given point in history, there were two, maybe three, people who were not complete bastards, and therefore there is no point or purpose to developing the supporting characters apart from having them twirl their mustaches and cackle.
It may be historically accurate that all these people were laughably monstrous insofar as their relevant actions here, and willing to thumb their nose at the rights of the nation’s citizens under the guise of protecting the country (or whatever), but it isn’t good filmcraft. There are some things such that, in making a film vs. a documentary, if they are true, you should lie.
Worse, in terms of whatever drama is meant to be conveyed in the thing, we watch the conspirators conspire. Most people involved may have been mightily convinced, despite the lack of much in the way evidence, but the audience is put in a very strange position when they are meant to immerse themselves in events, and have the questions played out as answers. Even if all the conspirators confessed, providing the exact details of all the events, that is still a far different thing than watching them do it.
The trial is supposed to be the thing here, the obvious railroading of a mother who, though she certainly knew there was some conspiracy afoot, may well not have had any idea how grand a conspiracy it was. It’s about the government taking over the “court,” monkeying with evidence, coercing witnesses, and ultimately getting the verdict they want merely by saying that they are going to. Whatever your particular views on such things, the power of watching such a travesty unfold is largely deflated when you watch it all happen.
Still, for all that this film would unquestionably be universally laughed at without its historic ties, it does offer up the story of a very interesting piece of America’s puzzle. There is much that is unfortunate when it comes to The Conspirator, but what stands out is that there if some very fine acting to be found here. If only it were easier to digest the result. Whatever else, the events are worth knowing, even if the film is only moderately worth watching.
The special features are all but too numerous to mention, and overall are of infinitely more value than the film itself. I dare go so far as to say that the Blu-Ray release is worth the purchase even for those who didn’t really enjoy the film at all. There is a video commentary with Robert Redford that is best described as being exactly as interesting as you find the film. Make of that what you will.
A feature-length documentary, The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln, is worth the price of admission on its own. An exceptional piece of work, this is a well-crafted, well-constructed, and well-conceived effort to relay the events, and you will rarely find a better historical documentary covering what is ultimately a very narrow window of events.
There are also several featurettes (full list of bonuses below), most of which run a fair amount of time, and aim at specific sections covered in the film. Perhaps best is the one covering Frederick Aiken, a man who, as much as anyone else, was caught up in the grand design. The behind-the-scenes featurettes (Production design, costume design, etc.) are better than most such fare for those that are interested in such things.
Overall, this is a very tricky release. Many a film fan won’t care one way or the other when it comes to such titles, and history fanatics probably won’t care if there is truly very little film involved in this production. However, purely as a Blu-Ray release, this is a winner to be sure. The film looks wonderful and it is packed like few other efforts with special features.
BLU-RAY SPECIAL FEATURES
- Video commentary with Director Robert Redford
- “The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln” – feature-length documentary
- Introduction to the American Film Company
- “Making of” featurette- Interviews with Cast and Crew
- Introduction to the History Behind the Film featurette
- Production Design featurette
- Costume Design featurette
- Props and Special Effects featurette
- “The Conspiracy” featurette
- “Mary Surratt’s Catholicism” featurette
- Military Trial featurette
- “Frederick Aiken: Defense Lawyer” featurette
- “Mary Surratt: Guilty or Innocent” featurette
- “Sentence and Execution” featurette
- Photo galleries
Venture behind the true story of one of the world’s most famous assassinations as Lionsgate debuts The Conspirator on Blu-ray Disc, 2-Disc DVD, Digital Download and On Demand this August. 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, Lionsgate presents The Conspirator in a deluxe Blu-ray Disc and 2-Disc DVD that both contain in-depth special features, including a feature-length documentary about the plot to kill Lincoln, interviews with the cast and crew plus numerous featurettes that look at the making of the film and the true story it captures. The Blu-ray version of the film also includes a video commentary (instead of the audio commentary) with Robert Redford and image galleries.
In the wake of the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865, a country mourns its leader, and eight people are charged with conspiring to kill the President, Vice President and Secretary of State. The lone woman accused, Mary Surratt (Wright), owns the boarding house where the attack was planned. Faced with a certain death, Surratt’s only hope comes in the form of a newly minted lawyer and Union war hero, Frederick Aiken (McAvoy), who reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal. As the courtroom trial unfolds, Aiken realizes his client may be innocent and that she is being used as bait in order to capture the only conspirator to have escaped a massive manhunt, her son (Johnny Simmons, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World).
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