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The Conspirator: Deluxe Edition Blu-ray Review

The Conspirator (2011) movie poster The Conspirator

Theatrical Release: April 15, 2011 / Running Time: 122 Minutes / Rating: PG-13 / Songs List

Director: Robert Redford / Writers: James Solomon (story & screenplay), Gregory Bernstein (story)

Cast: James McAvoy (Frederick Aiken), Robin Wright (Mary Surratt), Kevin Kline (Edwin Stanton), Evan Rachel Wood (Anna Surratt), Tom Wilkinson (Everdy Johnson), Justin Long (Nicholas Baker), Danny Huston (Joseph Holt), James Badge Dale (William Hamilton), Colm Meaney (General Hunter), Alexis Bledel (Sarah Weston), Johnny Simmons (John Surratt), Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth), Jonathan Groff (Louis Weichmann), Stephen Root (John Lloyd), John Cullum (Justice Wylie), Norman Reedus (Lewis Payne), John Michael Weatherly (George Atzerodt), Marcus Hester (David Herold), Chris Bauer (Major Smith), Jim True-Frost (General Hartranft), Shea Whigham (Captain Cottingham), David Andrews (Father Walter), Gerold Bestrom (Abraham Lincoln)

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Though its title is generic, the story that The Conspirator tells is anything but. In subject matter, Robert Redford's new period drama may closest resemble JFK, Oliver Stone's landmark 1991 film that asked us to reconsider the assassination of a beloved American president.
The Redford-directed drama opens with the assassination of a beloved American president, this one being Abraham Lincoln, and proceeds to tell a far less familiar tale that occurred in the aftermath of that nation-shaking event.

The unfortunately uncreative title refers to Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the owner of a boarding house where actor/assassin John Wilkes Booth and his few supporters stayed and plotted their mayhem, which also (less successfully) targeted Lincoln's Vice President and Secretary of State. Evidence suggests that Surratt's young adult son John played a peripheral role in the assassination, but he is in hiding and cannot be found. Twelve days after the shooting in Washington, D.C.'s Ford's Theatre, Booth was found and killed before he could receive a fair trial. At this point, authorities and the grieving, recently-united nation looked to hold Booth's accomplices accountable. Among the accused were several men with indisputable evidence against them and Mrs. Surratt, whose involvement appeared to be incidental at best.

In "The Conspirator", young Northern lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) defends boarding house owner Mary Surratt in a military trial against those accused of aiding in the assassination of President Lincoln.

Still, with the assassination fresh in mind, anyone allying with the suspects was destined to be perceived as an enemy of the state. This is the situation that young attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) finds himself in, when esteemed U.S. senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) appoints him to defend Surratt. As a principled individual with respect for the law, Aiken's belief in the right to a fair trial is put to the test by representing the sulky widow, of whose guilt he has little doubt. Johnson agrees to relieve Aiken of the case if he can find proof of his client's guilt. What Aiken finds instead is a mother committed to protecting her fugitive son.

Mrs. Surratt seems deserving of little blame, but circumstances cast her as a public enemy. As the military trial unfolds, an increasingly sympathetic Aiken becomes more aware how emotion is clouding the law and treating his client to a procedure anything but fair. Witnesses seem to perjure themselves and the tribunal seems to favor the prosecution, whose entire case against Surratt is built on a few contentious facts. Growing more convinced of his client's innocence with each passing day, Aiken takes extreme measures to spare her of a conviction and potential death sentence, pleading with Surratt's daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) to testify against her brother on her mother's behalf.

The young lawyer's passionate defense is met by opposition at every turn, earning him ridicule from his friends (including an unexpected Justin Long), a cancelled country club membership, disapproval from his girlfriend (Alexis Bledel), and disdain from his opponents (Danny Huston) and the U.S. Secretary of War (Kevin Kline).

In the title role, Robin Wright plays the accused Mary Surratt. Kevin Kline sports a beard with no mustache to portray unsympathetic Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

The Conspirator has a lot going for it on the page, which makes an auspicious film debut for "The Bronx is Burning" writer/executive producer James Solomon. The story has a winning blend of immense historical interest and general audience ignorance, allowing for both intrigue and mystery.
It is also a legal drama, which lends to smart, sharp, substantial storytelling as well as any genre. All of those qualities no doubt factored into Robert Redford making this his eighth film as director. Redford has been selective about stepping behind the camera, taking eight years to follow up his Oscar-winning debut, 1980's Ordinary People, and remaining almost as slow to return ever since. Perhaps the cold reception that befell his last film (2007's Lions for Lambs) has inspired Redford not to wait so long to direct something else.

The legendary actor brings some nice things to the table, among them, class, a steady hand, and the ability to attract talented performers. There is less prestige to the cast than one might expect of such veteran-enticing material. Frankly, it's tough to imagine Redford being impressed enough by things like Accepted and "Gilmore Girls" to seek out the likes of Long and Bledel. Perhaps they were just cast the old-fashioned way, with promising auditions. Regardless of our expectations, everyone onboard has something good to offer, with McAvoy spending his runaway lead screentime particularly well (and hiding his Scottish accent most impressively). I've long been surprised that Robin Wright (who officially drops the "Penn" here) could star in two of the most beloved movies of all time and almost nothing else of note. Her appearance, dowdy and dark-haired, is a bit of a revelation and she makes a strong case for prominent, continued employment. (Fortunately for her, she has high billing in two of this year's potential Oscar candidates in the Billy Beane drama Moneyball and David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake.)

While the movie is good, it isn't good enough to question the mid-spring theatrical release. The Conspirator is never quite as convincing as it ought to be, its design feeling a little too routine and its courtroom drama never as arresting as the many classics of the genre to which it undoubtedly invites comparison. With a year-end debut, the film's shortcomings would be more pronounced and it'd be harder to summon good will for something so distinctly positioned as awards bait. Relegated to a somewhat limited release in the less competitive month of April, the movie is refreshingly thoughtful and unmistakably well-researched. Though it fared pretty well with audiences (only two less widely distributed movies of 2011 have grossed more domestically), it never expanded enough to get a real shot at earning back its not so modest $25 million production budget.

That translates to greater than usual demand on home video, where The Conspirator debuted last week from Lionsgate in an unusually loaded 2-Disc Collector's Edition DVD and Deluxe Edition Blu-ray. We review the latter.

The Conspirator Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.35:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: August 16, 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Blue Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on 2-Disc Collector's Edition DVD ($29.95 SRP) and Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

In striving for historical accuracy, Redford and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel rely heavily on natural light. That gives the film a dark, pale look. The 2.35:1 transfer is a bit grainy and blurry. In addition, the blacks are always more like dark grays. It's an intentionally stylized presentation that would seem faithful to life pre-electricity, but the results do seem comparable to discs with technical shortcomings and I'm not sure where two stray white hairs briefly on the frame seem to fit in.

No such qualities mar the 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack, which feels every bit as lively as any other modern non-action/sci-fi/animated movie. Dialogue carries weight and there are some dynamic effects too, from fireworks to a jarring thrown brick. This is a very satisfying mix.

An illustration depicts John Wilkes Booth in his famous post-assassination proclamation in "The Conspirator: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Lincoln." Robert Redford seems more aware of the camera's presence in his making-of featurette remarks.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's many extras begin with a Bonus View commentary by Robert Redford. With this mode activated, the director is shown sporadically in a picture-in-picture window as he provides staggered remarks on the film. Maybe members of Redford's generation will get a thrill out of seeing him here (he's even shown watching silently over the end), but for the rest of us, the quarter-screen window adds little.
You can hear the same commentary without the PiP, a more conventional presentation that is what DVD viewers will have to settle for. The remarks themselves are informative, with Redford clearly having done his research on this unusually authentic production. His comments on history are complemented by facts about the movie's casting and production. However, there is a lot of dead air and no easy way to skip to the next Redford appearance. That's a lot of wasted time, which might have been better spent with this presented as a select scenes commentary instead.

The all-HD video extras begin with "The Conspirator: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Lincoln" (1:06:03), which the menu accurately describes as a full-length documentary. This polished piece does an admirable job of fleshing out the facts of the film, making use of photographs, illustrations, expert remarks, original re-enactment footage, and the occasional film clip. It is a terrific companion to the film and a worthwhile view in its own right, where it seems to have been made with cable television in mind.

"The Making of The Conspirator" (10:04) offers a fairly standard look at production, paying attention to the history and the period detail with comments from Redford and his cast plus a decent amount of on-set clips.

Retired Army colonel and historian Fred L. Borch inspects the work of production designer Kalina Ivanov in the third of ten "Witness History" shorts. Actor Norman Reedus strikes a pose much like the real Lewis Payne in the photo gallery.

"The American Film Company" (0:51) is simply a promotion for the historical drama studio that The Conspirator launches, to what should be American history buffs' delight. You've already seen the promo because it is the only unskippable element of the disc's default pre-menu reel.

Ten "Witness History" featurettes (41:03) are more like shorts, each running 2-6 minutes. These topical bits promote both The Conspirator and American Film (whose motto lends its name to the section), their attentions divided between the history and the film's faithful interpretation of it. These pieces' low positioning and ample detail may render them overly technical or overkill for the average viewer, but they are well-produced and informative. The ten pieces are as follows: introduction (2:48), the Lincoln assassination conspiracy (4:37), production design (3:57), Mary Surratt's Catholicism (2:17), costume design (5:19), military trial procedures (3:54), props & special effects (4:04), Fredrick Aiken (4:32), Mary Surratt's guilt or innocence (5:03), and sentencing & execution (4:32).

A photo gallery is in fact a slideshow (8:15) that offers a mix of film and behind-the-scenes stills set to score and edited with stylish transitions. Among the most noteworthy screens are those comparing characters to their real life historical counterparts.

Lovers Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel) and Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) share a smile in this photo gallery image. Justin Long tries his hand at drama as Aiken's mustachioed friend and fellow Civil War hero Nicholas Baker, seen here as part of the Blu-ray's menu montage.

Three good pieces of The Conspirator's theatrical marketing campaign are preserved: a full trailer (2:26) and two TV spots (0:45).

Besides the Bonus View "enhancement", all the Blu-ray bonus features appear to also be offered on The Conspirator's DVD,
one of the format's increasingly rare 2-disc sets.

The disc loads with trailers for Everything Must Go, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Music Never Stopped, Good Will Hunting, and Margin Call, followed by promos for epix and The American Film Company. The same things play from the menu's "Also from Lionsgate Blu-ray" listing.

Closely resembling the gallery, the menu displays a tasteful slideshow of character and scene images, with options enabling you to adjust the score excerpt's volume and turn off the navigation sounds. Though it supports bookmarks, the Blu-ray only resumes playback while your player is powered on, which frustratingly means you've got to skip through the trailers one at a time and endure the studio promo to return to the menu.

The disc is packaged in an ecologically-cut standard Blu-ray case and topped by a cardboard slipcover which embosses the title and certain features of Lincoln's monumental face in addition to repeating everything below in a slightly larger size.

Surratt daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) is encouraged to testify on her mother's behalf. Reliable character actor Stephen Root makes a brief but memorable appearance as dubious prosecution witness John Lloyd.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Conspirator may not reach the greatness whose path is often paved for such historically rich dramas, but it certainly delivers an engaging and edifying experience. Its Blu-ray exceeds expectations with an unusually substantial collection of mostly good extras on both the film's creation and the real events dramatized. If you're interested in the subject matter, you are likely to be quite satisfied.

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Related Reviews:
New to Blu-ray: POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold The Killing (Criterion Collection) The Big Lebowski Priest
National Treasure: Book of Secrets Nixon (Election Year Edition) The Murder of Mary Phagan True Grit (2010) Paths of Glory
James McAvoy: The Last Station Becoming Jane | Robin Wright: Forrest Gump The Princess Bride
Evan Rachel Wood: Across the Universe Whatever Works | Alexis Bledel: Tuck Everlasting | Tom Wilkinson: The Green Hornet

The Conspirator Songs List (in order of use): Curtis Roush - "All Hail to Our Triumph", Curtis Roush - "E Pluribus Unum", Curtis Roush - "Marching Through Georgia", Curtis Roush - "Weeping, Sad and Lonely" or "When This Cruel World is Over", Kelli Horton and Justin Long - "The Children of the Battlefield", Kelli Horton - "Dreams of Happier Days", Ray LaMontagne - "Empty"

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Reviewed August 22, 2011.



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