The Conspirator is notably the first effort from the American Film Company, whose aim is to make historically accurate films based on the significant events that helped shape America, with a firm belief that fact is more interesting than fiction.
For its debut feature, it chose to focus on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War, an event that had far greater consequences than the assassination of JFK. To direct this feature, a star who commands respect and has a proven track record (for the most part) was needed, and Robert Redford was just the man for the job.
The American Civil War and the assassination are obviously key to the story, but neither are dwelled on in great detail. The film is, in fact, about the subsequent trial and the quest to restore the confidence of the population in the justice system at any cost. Seven men and one woman, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who have ties to the South, are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the president of the North, and tried by his vice president and secretary of state, in a military court. Newly qualified lawyer and war hero for the confederacy Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is tasked with defending Surratt by his boss Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).
Aiken is reluctant to take the job, as he’s as keen for swift justice as anyone else, but soon finds that the evidence doesn’t stack up. Despite this, he’s faced with a succession of challenges, and soon realises this is anything but a fair trial. The prosecution, Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) is seemingly granted freedom to conduct himself as he pleases, and faces little objection from David Hunter (Colm Meaney) who’s in charge of the trial. Conflicted by his duties as a soldier, his allegiances to those he served in the war, and the interests of his client, Aiken must struggle against the odds to ensure Surratt receives a fair trial.
The Conspirator is fairly standard by the standards of court room dramas, and is no better or worse than many of the films of this type that were released in the 90s. Sure, the period setting with the backdrop of the American Civil War gives the film a distinct identity on the surface, but beneath that you pretty much know exactly what to expect.
To some, that’s a given, particularly being that it’s based on historical events, but the fact that most of the characters seem to wear their intentions on their sleeves means that very few of them have any substance or an ability to surprise the audience. Which is a shame, particularly given the quality of some of the names involved, which includes a great mix of stars and character actors.
Another one of the film’s major stumbling blocks is some incredibly clunky dialogue from time to time, as well as some lines so hilariously cheesy, they caused me to squirm in my seat. Despite the faults listed, I really quite enjoyed the film overall. Redford has crafted a film that has an incredibly classy look and feel, directing with the confidence that the actors can do the heavy lifting when it comes to telling the story of this incredibly important piece of American history.
It’s not a perfect film by any means, and there are many better films of both the legal drama and American Civil War variety out there. As such, The Conspirator is unlikely to win over any new converts to either genre, but for fans of the genres in question, it may be worth a look.
The film is shot in incredibly low light, giving it a distinct look and feel which really works incredibly well for the most part. The 1080p transfer is of extremely high quality overall, even with occasional moments of blurring, particularly in some of the court room scenes, where light shines from the windows into the dark room. Landscape shots hold up well particularly early on in the film, when it opens on a battlefield. This scene is among the best I’ve seen on the format this year.
In addition to the great picture quality, the sound on offer is also excellent, offering a 5.1 DTS HD master audio mix, the aural aspect of the film makes a similar first impression to the picture quality. The remainder of the film shifts the focus to dialogue-heavy courtroom scenes, where all the dialogue is crisp, clear and easily distinguishable. These scenes don’t ignore the surround sound mix, though, as the voices of the crowd surround you, making these moments immersive experiences.
In terms of extras, there’s a significant amount of features and supplementary material to get stuck into that enrich the viewing experience.
There are ten brief features accessed via a Witness History submenu that range from three to six minutes in length, and are all presented in 1080i. They all focus on a different aspect of the film’s story and provide some welcome historical context.
In addition to the above, there’s a feature length commentary with Redford which is, if I’m perfectly honest, quite dull. There are moments of insight, but there are also quite a few long silences where he has very little to add. One for the hardcore fans only, I’d say.
The best feature on the disc is The Plot To Kill Lincoln, which at just over an hour, is pretty much the perfect companion piece to a historical movie such as this, given that it gives background info on all of the major characters. There’s also a making-of, which clocks in at just over 10 minutes, but is fairly run of the mill.
All in all, this is a surprisingly strong release for a film that didn’t exactly set the box office alight, and is unlikely to shift a high number of units. Still, both the film and this disc are well worth a look.