'The Conspirator' Is Emotionally Vivid

Mary Surratt’s trial in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination is a complex story about motherhood, family, loyalty and fairness.

The Conspirator

Director: Robert Redford
Cast: Robin Wright; James McAvoy; Evan Rachel Wood
Distributor: Lionsgate
Release date: 2011-08-16

In Robert Redford’s The Conspirator -- a film centered around Abraham Lincoln’s death and the subsequent trial of Mary Surratt for her alleged role in his assassination -- this particular historical tale is brought to vibrant life. As James Solomon (one of The Conspirator’s writers) has said: “History isn’t a bunch of’s emotion.” Emotion saturates The Conspirator, which is not only an historical drama, but a complex narrative about motherhood, family, loyalty, fairness.

As the film begins, Fred Aiken (James McAvoy), a Captain for the Union army, is wounded and lying on a battlefield strewn with dead and injured soldiers. He survives, becomes a lawyer in post-Civil War Washington, and is romantically linked with Sara Weston (Alexis Bledel). While Fred attends a reception with his army buddies, John Wilkes Booth and his crew set in motion their plan to kill President Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward.

This tense, violent scene is fraught with realistic detail. One of Booth’s cohorts backs out of his attack on Johnson; a vicious stabbing of Seward fails to kill him; and after shooting Lincoln, Booth leaps onto the stage at Ford’s Theater and shouts “The South is avenged!” to an astonished crowd.

While Lincoln lingers in the hours before his death, his stoic Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), is determined to keep order in a city that has been shattered by confusion and fear. Suspects are rounded up, but one cannot be found: John Surratt (Johnny Simmons), the 21-year old son of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a widow who owns a boarding house known to have been patronized by Booth and his crew. John Surratt is revealed as a courier and spy for the Confederacy, and because he has evaded capture, Mary is arrested in his place. It seems that someone must pay, and anyone will do.

Mary is accused of having a role in Lincoln’s assassination and of aiding and abetting her son and the other “conspirators”. She is initially represented by Senator Reverdy Johnson, a former attorney general who is Fred’s mentor. Johnson views Mary’s military trial as “an atrocity”, and after the first day of proceedings in a dark, smoky courtroom run by a commission that is clearly and unapologetically biased, he turns the case over to Fred. Mary “needs a Yankee”, the Senator declares in his thick Southern accent.

But Fred is indignant. He’s a patriotic and loyal Northerner, a former soldier for the Union, and an idealistic young attorney who is certain of Mary’s guilt. Still, he has a job to do. He meets Mary in her dungeon-like cell, looks at her disgustedly and treats her with disdain. Mary also seems to have serious doubts about the 27-year-old Fred, who can barely admit that he has never before defended a case such as this. As the trial progresses, however, Mary opens up to Fred and they begin to see each other differently. Fred also sees that powerful people such as Edwin Stanton are out for blood instead of justice, that there is prevalent religious discrimination against Mary’s Catholic faith, and that “abandoning the Constitution” by giving her a military trial “is not the answer.”

The Conspirator is rather heavy-handed in its political stance, but it raises important issues that have a direct link to the current debate over whether terror suspects should face military trials. Furthermore, it excels in humanizing, in the most immediate sense, these figures otherwise relegated to history books. There's so much more to Mary’s refusal to turn against her son than her opinion of Lincoln and her allegiance to the Confederacy. As she asks Fred, “Have you ever cared for something greater than yourself?”

Mary’s maternal instincts drive her to the ultimate sacrifice, and Robin Wright portrays this multi-layered character with skill, depicting Mary as often vulnerable yet inherently strong. Mary’s interactions with Fred and their feelings toward each other are ever-changing, and they clash even as they come to a mutual respect. Scottish actor James McAvoy inhabits Fred’s character with ease, right down to his rookie fumbles in the courtroom and his crisp Yankee accent. Fred grows throughout the story, transforming from a naïve young attorney to a man who, though shunned by society and even his girlfriend, stands by his belief that truth is more important than revenge. “Why did I fight for the Union if my rights aren’t preserved?” he asks.

There are other exceptional performances in The Conspirator, including the remarkably versatile Kevin Kline, and Evan Rachel Wood as Mary’s daughter, Anna. Anna is a victim and a truly sympathetic character whose innocent infatuation with John Wilkes Booth is used to build a case against her family. She's torn between loyalty to her brother and saving her mother, and Wood handles the nuances of this character brilliantly. She and Wright bring intense emotion to the mother-daughter relationship, and their final scene together is heartbreaking.

This scene takes place in Mary’s cell, which—like the courtroom—is dim but filled with thin streams of hazy sunlight. Although candles, kerosene lamps and natural light bring authenticity to the film’s time period, they might also be symbolic. Mary and Fred constantly squint into the rare sunlight, as if they’re hoping it will lead them out of the darkness. It's in these small details that director Redford effectively creates the setting, and it's through The Conspirator’s characters that this piece of history is told on a level that feels immediately, painfully real.

The DVD contains five hours of special features, including interviews with Redford, writer James Solomon, and The Conspirator’s cast; information about the meticulous process involved in recreating 1860s Washington; and an in-depth documentary about Mary Surratt and the assassination of President Lincoln. This entertaining and informative documentary should be of interest to anyone, but will especially be of use to educators. Bizarre and chilling facts surrounding the events and the era are presented, including the public’s habit of setting up concession stands at public executions, where spectators enjoyed lemonade and pound cake. The documentary also answers many questions that are left unanswered by the film, such as why William Seward was bed-ridden at the time of his attempted assassination and what became of John Surratt.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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