Set just after the April 15, 1865, assassination of Abraham Lincoln, The Conspirator attempts to recreate the hysteria and shady political dealings that took place in order to hold someone, anyone responsible for the hideous crime. Nearly everyone knows Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, a disgruntled Confederate actor. What many of us didn’t know, or have long forgotten, is that the assassination was part of a larger conspiracy that included plans to kill the vice president and secretary of state at the same time. (Sec. of State William H. Seward was attacked but not killed, while the man assigned to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson got drunk and fled.)

The ConspiratorAt the heart of the film is the story of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), owner of the Washington boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators stayed leading up to their crimes. Seeking swift justice to satisfy a grieving nation, the Federal government rounds up the accused group of eight conspirators and places them before a military tribunal rather than a civilian court. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union Army hero and recent law school graduate is assigned to defend Surratt, despite his initial distaste for her and belief that a negative outcome has been predetermined. It’s not long before Aiken realizes that Surratt has been detained to smoke out her own son, John (Johnny Simmons), the one conspirator to have escaped justice. Aiken’s newfound zeal puts him at odds with Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), whose interest in results trumps all other considerations.

Screenwriter James Solomon, having come from a background in journalism, heavily researched his script. He read actual trial transcripts, and obscure writings to develop the most historically accurate story possible. With the aid of an exacting script, director Robert Redford’s deliberately paced storytelling style works well here, lending an air of authenticity to the proceedings. Since this is a Redford film. One can’t help but feel The Conspirator isn’t just a film about the events of 1865 but also a metaphor for a post-9/11 America where some believe bending the constitution makes sense in the name of safety.

The acting is quite good across the board. Wright plays the role of a martyr, but the actress shows appropriate and convincing emotions when expressing concern over her son and daughter. James McAvoy moves brilliantly from novice lawyer to Constitutional champion. Tom Wilkinson is wonderful as Reverdy Johnson, a Congressman who initially takes on Surratt’s defense but decides his own Southern heritage would mean she couldn’t get a fair trial (something that she couldn’t get anyway, as it turns out).Many fine performances come from the prosecutor’s side of the aisle such as Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General in Stanton’s War Department (Danny Huston) and General David Hunter (Colm Meaney) who want revenge more than justice.

Redford’s film is structurally sound and a very interesting history lesson. Beautifully shot, The Conspirator is also a tribute to the mid-1800’s. For people who want to learn more about the conspiracy behind the Lincoln assassination this is a must-see.

Presented in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer looks stunning. The film’s somewhat limited color scheme is well represented and black levels are consistent and inky. Detail is incredibly sharp, with textures exhibiting real punch. While there were one or two instances of color bleeding, digital anomalies are nonexistent.

The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio sound mix is wonderful, featuring nuanced dialogue and nice energy during the films more exciting sequences. Surrounds aren’t used a lot, but this is due to the sound design of the movie, not this transfer. High- and low-ends are clean and well-defined, and dynamic range is well utilized throughout.

English and Spanish subtitles are included.

We get a nice slate of special features:

  • Commentary by Director Robert Redford can be played as an audio commentary via Bonus View and PIP. Redford gives some information on how the project came into being, its long gestation period, and some of the historical aspects that needed to be tweaked for the film.
  • The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln (1080i; 1:06:03) offers more background and information on all of the major players.
  • The American Film Company (HD; 00:51) Oddly, this “feature” is one second longer than the unavoidable promo that runs before the Blu-ray’s main menu loads, and includes a brief fireworks display.
  • The Making of The Conspirator (1080i; 10:04) is a typical EPK featuring interviews with the cast and crew.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD; 2:26)
  • TV Spots (HD; 00:48)
  • Photo Gallery

A submenu provides several “Witness History” featurettes, including:

  • Witness History: Introduction (1080i; 2:49) a brief overview of The American Film Company and The Conspirator‘s premise.
  • The Conspiracy (1080i; 4:37) offers a brief background on the conspiracy, including comments by historian Thomas R. Turner.
  • Production Design (1080i; 3:58) looks at the film’s fantastic physical production, focusing on designer Kalina Ivanov.
  • Mary Surratt’s Catholicism (1080i; 2:17) explores Surratt’s religious beliefs.
  • Costume Design (1080i; 5:19) profiles The Conspirator‘s costume designers Richard Schoen and Louise Frogley, as well as the vast research that was required to recreate authentic costumes.
  • Military Trial (1080i; 3:55) is an interesting exploration military tribunals.
  • Props and Special Effects (1080i; 4:05) takes a look at the work of Prop Master John Bankston.
  • Frederick Aiken – Defense Lawyer (1080i; 4:33) is a worthwhile piece on the real life attorney who defended Surratt.
  • Mary Surratt: Guilty or Innocent (1080i; 5:03) gives a brief but interesting account of both sides of this issue.
  • Sentence and Execution (1080i; 4:32) discusses the series of events that unfolded after Mary was pronounced guilty by the military commission.