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Amistad

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Amistad

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: R
RunTime: 142 Minutes
Release Date: December 1997
Genre: Drama




Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
1½ stars out of 4

In 1839, 53 Africans, held under horrific conditions on the Spanish slave ship La Amistad, broke free and killed most of the crew. They tried to force two survivors to take them home, but the ship was captured and the Africans found themselves in America, imprisoned again and embroiled in a massive legal battle, with ramifications far beyond their particular case. The story of these Africans is important and needed to be told. It's a shame Steven Spielberg does such a poor job telling it.

"Amistad" is a maddening film because it comes so close to greatness. To be sure, there are magnificent scenes, particularly the opening of the movie, depicting the revolt on the ship. The segment is dark, brutal and thrilling, mesmerizing because it taps into the fundamental nature of the human condition, that desperate need for life and freedom. Unfortunately, for most of the movie Spielberg inexplicably takes an academic approach to slavery, reducing the Africans to noble props in a series of extremely tired courtroom scenes. Instead of looking into the personalities of the Africans and the psychology of slavery, we watch stuffy white guys in silly outfits debating the legal minutiae of the issue.

Matthew McConaughey plays the lawyer for the Africans. In granny glasses and curls, he looks like a frat boy in a college play, and his unfocused performance adds little to the movie. Morgan Freeman fares better as a former slave turned abolitionist, but he isn't given much to do. Anthony Hopkins, however, gets loads of screen time as former President John Quincy Adams, reluctantly drawn into the case. Hopkins gives a bizarre performance, shuffling about while alternating between mumbling and bellowing at those around him. In early scenes, he appears to be quite senile, but later in the film, he miraculously recovers enough to give a long, ponderous speech to the Supreme Court.

The only African we get to know is Cinque, beautifully played by Djimon Hounsou. The actor is remarkably expressive, creating the only fully- realized African character. Cinque is a leader who believes himself unworthy to lead. His doubts, confusion, defiance and bravery give us the human connection the film so desperately needs.

In the magnificent "Schindler's List," Spielberg showed uncharacteristic restraint, allowing the audience to react to the story naturally. Here, he reverts to the emotional manipulation he used in films like "E.T.," with John William's overbearing musical score constantly telegraphing what Spielberg expects us to feel. Every moment of the film is choreographed in glossy Hollywood fashion. Even a scene depicting the Africans' nightmarish life on the slave ship, an extremely powerful segment, loses some of its impact because Spielberg can't resist orchestrating every second, using oh-so-perfect lighting and "emaciated" Africans with bodies straight out of Gold's Gym.

"Amistad's" best moments are the quiet ones. A scene where a captive African interprets the story of Jesus based on illustrations from a Bible is gently moving. A dinner conversation where President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) receives thinly-veiled threats about a brewing civil war sends chills up the spine. Scenes like those hint at what a great film "Amistad" could have been.

If only Spielberg had realized that bombast is no substitute for good storytelling. The historical account of the human beings taken captive on La Amistad is important, but we barely get to see it here. Instead, we get two and one half hours of Spielberg's bells and whistles, with lawyers pontificating while the Africans are left in the sidelines. "Amistad" has some great moments, but great moments just aren't enough anymore.

Copyright 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott

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