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Despite his pedigree among the Hollywood elite, Robert Redford rivals even Paul Haggis and Ron Howard as the blandest filmmaker to ever take home a best director Oscar. He won his Oscar in 1980 for Ordinary People, a boring, stuffy trip through the angst suffered by rich white people, and generally speaking, a movie no one remembers very much about aside from the fact that it beat Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull for best picture. It also beat David Lynch’s Elephant Man, and dozens of more interesting films that weren’t even nominated. From here Redford developed a distinctive style through naval-gazing characters, pleasant-looking natural photography, and the continuing hardships of angst-ridden, upper class white people. Redford does have one genuinely good film under his belt, Quiz Show, but recently his filmography has turned into a running joke of The Legend of Bagger Vance and Lions for Lambs. Now he’s chosen to partner with the American Film Company to tell the under told story of Mary Surratt, the only woman among the group charged with the conspiracy to assassinate president Abraham Lincoln.

Conspirator, The
As the story goes, Lincoln’s death at the hands of a famous stage actor named John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) was only one part of a larger equation, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward were also scheduled for demolition by Booth’s team of assassins (Norman Reedus, Johnny Simmons among others). Following several days of tracking, the bulk of the conspirators were captured, charged, and a trail was quickly thrown together. Among the accused was Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a widowed confederate sympathizer whose boardinghouse was the place the conspirators gathered to plan their violent plot. After her original attorney quits, a young union war hero named Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is appointed as Surratt’s defender by his mentor, senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Aiken is left in an impossible situation. As the public’s bloodlust boils over he risks being branded as a traitor for doing his appointed job. On the other hand, it quickly becomes clear that Surratt’s guilt isn’t the forgone conclusion he originally assumed, and Aiken is taken aback by the prosecution’s utter contempt for due process.

I appreciate Redford’s ‘need’ to tell this all too theatrical true story, and I appreciate the difficulty inherent in telling it. I also appreciate the fact that no one is pushing some kind of out of place romantic angle into the mix, and that the story is being treated with some relatively stringent truthiness. All of this said, I found myself utterly bored by Redford’s storytelling style, and don’t understand why he wouldn’t take a longer look at the more exciting, non-courtroom drama aspects of the larger history. His work is relatively efficient, but his choices are all obvious, bland, and old fashion in a way that robs the story of the drama found in reading the story on paper. More often than not I felt as if I was watching a very competent History Channel special presentation, and expected to break from the drama in order to hear from talking head historians. The final act is wrought with emotional rollercoastery, and Redford does capitalize on it to a certain degree, but much of the drama is hampered by his heavy-handed use of pause and swelling music. It’s disheartening considering the quality of drama and suspense wrenching Redford achieved with Quiz Show, which actually has measurably lower stakes.

Conspirator, The
The Conspirator bleeds ‘Oscarbait’, from subject matter to heavy-handed scripting, but it’s quite clear that the cast is fishing more fervently than Redford or screenwriter James D. Solomon. As The Conspirator starts, Redford unveils his all-star cast with all the grandeur of a very special, cameo laden sitcom season finale. You can almost hear the studio audience cheering with every recognizable face that is unveiled. It is quite obvious we’re watching a production from one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors. Watching the film is very much like watching a stage play, but not usually in the way I’d prefer. I do think that James McAvoy stands strongly overall, but even his character is blandly stoic, and comes to life in a form befitting a theatrical trailer stinger. The high-end old guard, like Kevin Kline, Robin Wright and Tom Wilkinson all frown their way through the film admirably, but Redford makes some really weird choices by woefully miscasting younger folks like Alexis Bledel and Justin Long, and these poor kids stand no chance.

Video


So I’m not really a fan of Redford and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel’s all too obvious visual choices for The Conspirator (which is really too bad given Sigel’s rather brilliant career), but there’s no mistaking the basic quality of the imagery on this 1080p transfer. I’m not entirely convinced a Blu-ray release is required over a DVD release in this case, but there are some advantages. Problems arise thanks to the smudgy lens look, made to soften the lighting, and amplify the effect of the low-light atmosphere (very few light bulbs existed in the Civil War era, you see). This soft look is then coupled with quite a bit of 35mm grain (sometimes downright excessive), which is not the best environment for sharpness or high detail to flourish. Yet, there is a clarity to all but the darkest sequences that would likely be lost on a SD release. There’s so little colour that occasional flourishes do pop quite a bit, specifically Justin Long’s bizarrely pink tie. These pops, and the other hues, mostly brown, tan, and flat reds, are smooth like a coloured version of a black and white feature, and to the transfer’s credit quite consistent. I would prefer deeper blacks, but assume the lighter quality of the blacks is part of the intended ‘olde timey’ look.

Conspirator, The

Audio


The Conspirator’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is actually pretty impressive considering the fact that it is, at its base, a courtroom drama. The track is a little unbalanced at times, blurting out a bit too much high volume music following more subtle vocal only discussion, and some performances are generally soft (Danny Huston), but overall things are relatively even keeled. Some of the dialogue is slightly off-lip, and clearly post-synced, but words aren’t lost in the mix. The surround and stereo channels don’t come into play very often, even during the courtroom scenes, which feature plenty of peanut gallery heckles and shocked mumbles, but the big crowd sequences towards the beginning of the film feature plenty of swooping channel to channel movement, and directional additions. Mark Isham’s throbby string score is mostly delegated to the stereos, but produces some good LFE hum, and is generally warm.

Extras


This disc comes fitted with a sizable collection of extras, which begin with a picture in picture commentary from director Robert Redford. Redford’s commentary is dry and pocked with silence, as expected based on his commentator’s reputation, but when he is speaking Bobby manages to eek out a bit of valuable information, though he tends to default to blathering through subtext rather than historical basis, or behind the scenes discussion. With a little more consistency this would be a definitely interesting track, but as is fans of the film should appreciate the alternate aural option on the viewing. The more prominent problem is the PiP option, which I had assumed would include interesting historical markers, such as maps, photos, newspaper clippings, or anything relevant to the story. Alas, the smaller picture features nothing but Redford’s sleepy face as he watches the film off-screen along with us. Based on his demeanor, his shirt, and his bed head I’m assuming he just woke up minutes before recording began. Couldn’t you at least run a comb through your hair, man?

Conspirator, The
Things get better with ‘ The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln’ (66:00, HD), a well made documentary on the more interesting aspects of the story – the process of Lincoln’s assassination. Over its nearly feature length runtime this doc covers the waning days of the Civil War, the emancipation of slaves, John Wilkes Booth’s anger, the gather of the conspirators, Mary Surratt and her family, the multiple murder plot, the brief histories of the conspirators, the process behind the assassination/attempted assassinations, and the efforts to capture the assassins. The court case is then delegated to the second half, following discussion of Civil War era photography, and the restoration of the original courtroom. Focus is then placed more on the public view of the trail, the vile treatment of the conspirators, and the circus surrounding the eventual hangings. This is a swift, sometimes overproduced, but overall effective piece of filmmaking, and only falls apart when it briefly turns into an ad for Redford’s film. Occasional cuts to black lead me to assume this originally aired on television.

‘The Making of The Conspirator’ (10:00, HD) is a reasonably effective behind the scenes EPK that covers the early production process, historical accuracy, production design, the colour palette, historical accuracy, character, Redford’s direction, historical accuracy, the hanging scene, and historical accuracy. Interview subjects include Redford, producer Brian Falk, screenwriter James Solomon, production designer Kalina Ivanov, DP Newton Thomas Sigel, and actors Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Kevin Kline, Danny Huston and Evan Rachel Wood. Other extras include an ad for The American Film Company, a solid collection of ten ‘Witness History’ web featurettes (Introduction, The Conspiracy, Production Design, Mary Surratt’s Catholicism, Costume Design, Military Trail, Props and Special Effects, Fredrick Aiken: Guilty or Innocent, and Sentence and Execution, totaling 41:00, HD), a photo gallery, trailers and TV spots.

Conspirator, The

Overall


There are no surprises here, The Conspirator is an unfortunately stale adaptation of an interesting, and under-explored piece of American history, from an unfortunately stale Hollywood artefact who has yet to create anything of long term merit in this particular film watcher’s eyes. Director Robert Redford and his conspirators don’t fail, they just fail to create something genuinely dramatic. The extras on this disc, which do kind of play as an elongated ad for The American Film Company, are generally more interesting than the film itself. The arrival of this Blu-ray in my mailbox was actually quite timely, in that I just recently took a road trip, and listened to Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, which covers the conspiracy of the Lincoln assassination in greater and more riveting detail, and which is where I first learned of Mary Surratt. Based on Vowell’s book it seems to me a dark comedy concerning the fate of Samuel Mudd would’ve made for a better movie.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality


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