Amistad (1997)

A review by Jeffrey Overstreet.

Director -  Steven Spielberg; writer – David Franzoni; director of photography – Janusz Kaminski; editor – Michael Kahn; music – John Williams; production designer – Rick Carter; producers – Steven Spielberg, Debbie Allen and Colin Wilson. STARRING: Morgan Freeman (Joadson), Nigel Hawthorne (President Martin Van Buren), Anthony Hopkins (John Quincy Adams), Djimon Hounsou (Cinque), Matthew McConaughey (Baldwin), David Paymer (Secretary of State John Forsyth), Pete Postlethwaite (Holabird), Stellan Skarsgard (Tappan), Razaaq Adoti (Yamba), Abu Bakaar Fofanah (Fala) and Anna Paquin (Queen Isabella). Dreamworks SKG. 150 minutes. Rated R.

It’s probably politically incorrect for me to do anything but praise Amistad. After all, it is one of the boldest cinematic portrayals of the plight of American slaves ever filmed. And it was directed by Steven Spielberg, who crafted such a memorable memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, and a gift to its survivors, with Schindler’s List.

And with such an impressive lineup of distinguished actors, surely we’re looking at a landmark cinematic event!

Oh, if only. Alas, many of the things that his previous historical epics, including the underrated Empire of the Sun, led us to expect from Spielberg seem to be missing this time around. Amistad feels strangely incomplete, and at times even airbrushed to be easier on the eyes.

The film’s strengths are many. Djimon Hounsou gives a promising breakthrough performance as Cinque, the African who rises to represent his fellow captives. The attention to historical detail is impressive. Courtroom scenes avoid Hollywood legal arena clichés.

And above all, there’s Anthony Hopkins. In his turn as former President John Quincy Adams, Hopkins lives up to his reputation as one of the big screen’s most compelling presences. Most audiences would flinch at the idea of a movie’s finale consisting of one long philosophy-heavy speech, but Hopkins, as the unsteady, deep-thinking, quirky master orator, makes every word count. He’s brilliant.

But neither Hounsou nor Hopkins are given the chance to carry the film the way Liam Neeson carried Schindler’s List. Hopkins’ appearances are fleeting, and Hounsou’s character feels too much like the Model Suffering African, without enough distinction in his character to command our attention.

The rest of the cast are less than brilliant, and some are miscast entirely. Matthew McConaughey is an especially unfortunate choice, playing the lawyer who seeks to help the slaves against all odds. McCounaughey doesn’t embarrass himself; he does his best with the material he’s given. But he’s only required to look determined and throw a couple of temper tantrums. He never really finds a character to inhabit.

Morgan Freeman looks like he was handed his lines, coached through his scenes (“Look solemn and stand in the back of the room, Morgan. Okay, now look deeply moved by what you’re watching. Now, smile.”), and then went home. Others — Nigel Hawthorne, Pete Postlethwaite, Anna Paquin, Stellan Skarsgard — are equally distinguished and equally underused. Why cast such important actors in such brief, bland parts?

Even Hounsou is the victim of bad scripting. In the first half, we see him get angry, yell a lot, and make his eyes very very big like an African Mel Gibson; then in the second act he reveals his story, his terrifying memories, and we learn about what he left behind and why the others respect him. But it always feels “representative” rather than specific.

The slaves remain an anonymous bunch from beginning to end, unlike the living personalities of the Jews in Schindler’s List. We’re expected to feel for them. Look at the atrocities they endured! Look at what a strange and disorienting world they find themselves trapped in! And indeed, their sufferings are great. But the same lessons could have been taught by a PBS documentary. One character informs the attorney that the winner in court will be the one who tells “the best story”. Spielberg should have taken that advice. Instead, he seems to be crafting a tool for classrooms instead of cinemas.

The screenplay gives so much attention to the legal complications of freeing the slaves that we don’t have time to develop more than mere sympathy for them. Hollywood’s master storyteller seemed confused about which story he was telling. He moves so fast and so frequently between different contexts that we never find our balance. More character development, please, Mr. Spielberg… even if it means a longer movie!

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski brings alive scenes of the slaves’ escape from their chains on the nightmarish sea journey. In the opening minute of the film, sweat on a slave’s forehead glistens like stars in a night sky. But the courtroom scenes are filmed through a murky lens, so the Supreme Court members’ heads glow with silver halos while the rest of the room is drab and shadowed. It is an interesting approach, but dulls the drama of these scenes, making the figures look trapped in amber like the mosquito in Jurassic Park.

Worst of all is the pompous overbearing nature of John Williams’ soundtrack. It’s as if at the beginning of each scene he must announce “This is going to be rough! Hang on!” or “This is tragic! Get out your hankies!” He’s never been so unnecessarily melodramatic. Some silence would have been nice. Spielberg restrained him in Schindler’s List, and as a result the soundtrack was powerful, enhancing rather than dominating. But the final minutes of the film, as Spielberg directs an embarrassingly sentimental farewell accompanied byWilliams’ euphoric crescendo, are inappropriately reminiscent of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

In spite of its flaws, Amistad will remain a notable film for two reasons.

First, for Anthony Hopkins’ climactic speech. It will ring in the memory long after the movie’s particulars are forgotten.

And second, for a surprising appreciation of the Gospel. In one profound scene, a slave browses the Bible and, from the pictures, follows the story of a holy man who suffered much, was executed, returned from the dead, and showed tormented souls the way to the kingdom of God. The slave finds hope in Jesus without having heard a single sermon. Through the rest of his personal sufferings, he notices the cross in things all around him, and it brings him a powerful hope. This is the most straightforward, understated, and powerful big-screen representation of the gospel in recent movie history.

And it’s the bravest decision Spielberg the Storyteller has made since Raiders of the Lost Ark, when he let human heroes fail while the Almighty saved the day.

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