By Caryn James | James on Screens August 16, 2011 at 1:10AM
Robert Redford’s taut, atmospheric drama The Conspirator arrives on DVD and VOD today, offering a second chance to discover a film that is far more than a disguised history lesson about the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln.
Robin Wright is richly enigmatic as Mary Surratt, accused of helping her son and his friends conspire in the assassination plot. Was she a conspirator or just guilty of letting John Wilkes Booth hang around her boarding house? And James McAvoy is subtlely powerful as Frederick Aiken, the film’s true central character, a lawyer forced against his will to defend Surratt. Aiken’s moral dilemma – he is not convinced that Surratt was or wasn't involved – distills and humanizes the questions about fairness and justice that give the film such resonance.
The DVD is loaded with extras, including Redford’s audio commentary (with bonus view commentary on Blu-Ray), and some fascinating little shorts in which historians address Surratt’s guilt or innocence and Aiken’s legal strategy. But the film itself is the point. Its dramatic view of the American legal system in a time of war is hardy locked in the past; without bludgeoning, The Conspirator speaks all too well about issues that are every bit as thorny and urgent today.