Distributed by Lionsgate
1080P in VC-1 CODEC
19.6Mb/s AP@L3 Profile
DTS-MA 5.1 Audio
The Film 4 / 5
I will openly acknowledge right off the bat I have struggled with how I want to write this review. The story present here is a matter of historical importance; the trial of Mary Surratt, Inn Owner for her involved in the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln. So, I've decided to divide the story section into three parts.
Recently for HTF, I had a chance to talk to the producers of "The Conspirator" and they had pointed out that even with a limited budget, they were able to get the cast that they wanted... especially Robin Wright as Mary Surratt. Let me be the first to say, that's just the tip of the iceberg in how good this cast is. James McAvoy and Robin Wright as leads turn in great performances; but I was very impressed with the secondary cast like Tom Wilkinson, Colm Meaney, Kevin Cline and others.
Like most genre films, you're going to have several sprawling moments of mobs, packed courtrooms. The feel of the film comes across right from the beginning in part because the cast really stands up to their performances.
America loves conspiracy theories. From Kennedy to 9-11, no matter how good or bad, we latch onto them. But part of the reason why are attracted to them is that occassionally they turn out to be true. The story of Mary Surratt is a complex one. Historians have debated for years how deeply involved Surratt was in the planning of the Lincoln killing. Depending on the theory, she was everything from a bitter inn keeper who was glad to see him dead to someone who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong son.
This leads to an interesting problem for the film. The Conspirator marks a first release for "The American Film Company", a new hollywood label that hopes to make an market films using historically accurate scripts to provide the drama. In the case of The Conspirator, though, there is simply too much that can never be known. Motives of characters, how they thought and felt. History can tell us many things, but motivations - unless someone specifically states them and even there it's suspect - are a rare thing for a historian to assess.
Frederick Allen, as played by McAvoy is a conflicted union officer, assigned to defend Surratt and seek the truth. Along the way, he discovers a lot about Surratt.. but again, because the film strives to be historically accurate with what is known the drama strains to make those requirements really work to effectively keep the audience watching.
I've sometimes thought that drama does it's best when it "fills in the gaps"... even as a historian, I found myself thinking: there needs to be something here in order to keep the plot moving.
The Conspirator is a film with a fantastic cast and some great moments that I think is a better film then it gets credit for - if it had been released at a different point in the year with a broader push, there would be real consideration for Robin Wright's performance. But that isn't to say that there aren't issues..
The film however has some significant problems that I couldn't escape. They are basically history and structure. It's not to say that the film doesn't make an effort to be historically accurate. It does. But the film runs into some real issues in that it tries to too tightly focus on this one event, this trial - and the exclusion of everything else at a certain point trips into the land of the absurd.
At no point do I remember, and I've now seen this several times, did any real mention of slavery come about. They didn't debate the rights or what Surratt believed in that helped get her flagged.. they mention "the cause" often, but no one says much about "slaves". That small writing detail does allow a tight focus on the trial, but it almost feels as though the event has been lifted from history and put into a vacuum somewhere else.
Picture Quality 4 / 5
So, I guess VC-1 isn't dead. I had hoped that the VC1 CODEC, used in HD-DVD and then for ports from HD-DVD was on the way out. The CODEC has been on the significant wane and newer titles seldom use it. Why bring that up? Because cheap players WILL struggle with this disc. I have had no issues on my Oppo, PS3 or MediaCenter, but in an attempt at playing on a Magnavox/cheap walmart player, pixelization and scattered slow picture is not abnormal. Many of the very cheap players have taken great effort to tweak their performance built around newer CODECs, and so those using VC1 at times will suffer.
But with that out of the way, the transfer looks good. Redford has a real eye for how to make a film look as though it has a "dirty" feel to it, courtrooms have a murky light that is representative of the time period, meanwhile outdoor scenes are at times fantastically beautiful. The film moves away from the super-clean feel of digitally shot presentations and has an intentional dated look to it that I find quite good.
Audio 4.5 / 5
Presented in DTS-MA 5.1, the audio here would rival a lot of special effect films. With several scenes of fighting, an assassination and a few large room scenes the DTS 5.1 mix really does it's job. The audio is just short of a perfect from me because some scenes - especially the court room scenes - the dialog is not quite as good as I feel it should be. The score and effects are very well realized and the use of LFE is very good - you definitely will know when the action is coming.
The Extras 5 / 5
I have to say, if I could give any film that I've reviewed a "6 / 5" on extras, this may be it. I have different expectations when I buy a film of what kind of extras I should get. The Conspirator is overflowing with extras, and a great number of them are fantastic.
The Extras are:
Video Commentary with Robert Redford - a commentary of the film that can be played as a full video commentary or an audio-commentary with pop-up video. The commentary is informative and tells the story of the development of the cast and story and how this project came to being.
The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln (16:9, 1080P, AVC1 H264 CODEC 18.1AWBR, Dolby Stereo).. Filmed in a Ken Burns style, this documentary about the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln is informative, well paced and frankly it's the best moment on this disc.
The documentary is effective, engrossing, entertaining.. on every single level the documentary works.
The American Film Company (51 Seconds). It's hard to say: "Why Did you Do this" But the American Film Company production tag which is an extra, a forced viewing item and a plug all in one would be OK.. if you didn't HAVE to see it every time you pop in the disc. Fortunately, it's short enough to go get a drink.
The Making of the Conspirator 10:03, 1080P, AVC-MPEG4. A behind the scenes look and some discussions with the actors of the process of the film.
The Making of History Extras All of these extras are presented in 1080I
Witness History, Introduction - An Introduction by the American Film Company to the film.
The Conspiracy - 4:37 - a brief background on the conspiracy itself including a discussion with historian Thomas Turner about how it has grown.
Production Design 3:58 - this is a look behind the production and stagecraft of the film.
Mary Surratt's Catholicism - 2:17 - while a big issue for historians, Surratt's Catholicism never makes a real mention in the film itself, but here it's discussed as well as how the church helped hide her son for fear of his execution.
Costume Design - 5:19 - the discussion of how the costume design for all characters was developed
Military Trial - 3:55 - a discussion of the use of military tribunals as a means of trial throughout history.
Props and Effects - 4:05 - how the special effects and time appropriate props were set in the film.
Frederick Allen, Defense Lawyer - 4:33 - a documentary piece about the life of Frederick Allen, the union officer turned defender of Surratt.
Mary Surratt: Innocent or Guilty? - 5:03 - this is almost the narrative I was wish was built into the film. A back and forth about the question of Surratt's guilt or innocence. I have to say, had the film taken a more affirmative stance, I think it would have helped.
Sentence and Conviction - 4:32 - a telling of what happen that brought to execution and the events that happened following. Informative and interesting.
Conclusion: 4.5 / 5, and if you're a history buff, a MUST OWN.
It's not often that I come to the end of the review and find myself saying that I'd recommend this disc for the documentary alone. But I would. The film is a fine film, better then I expected well acted with a great cast and a great look. I think it falls a bit short on the drama due to some script issues and the fact that the conclusion is so uncertain in the minds of the filmmakers. But the extras on this disc go beyond selling it, they make it something that you'll revisit. There are quite a few films you'll watch one time and that's it.. "The Conspirator" features documentaries and extras that really make it stand out, and frankly should probably make it's way into a lot of AP History classes. But the extras arent' just academic, they are interesting and fun to watch.
If you're a history buff like I am, this film is in the MUST OWN camp. But if you're looking for a challenging tale told fairly well, I'd still put this on your list as a "should see"