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With: Morgan Freeman, Nigel Hawthorne, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, David Paymer, Pete Postlethwaite, Stellan Skarsgard, Anna Paquin, Tomas Milian, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Written by: David Franzoni
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: R for some scenes of strong brutal violence and some related nudity
Language: English, Mende, Spanish with English subtitles
Running Time: 152
Date: 12/04/1997

Amistad (1997)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Give Us Free

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It all starts with a nail, just as Schindler's List began with a candle. The nail is pulled out of a stone by bare, bleeding fingers. A face covered in beady sweat is seen and harsh breathing is heard. These are the last moments of being captured and the first moments of freedom. Soon, Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) will lead a band of slaves against their captors, in the middle of a lightning storm, in the extraordinary first 10 minutes of Steven Spielberg's new film, Amistad.

We follow as the slaves are tricked and brought to America instead of Africa by the two remaining crew members. They are arrested for murder and put on trial. A slavery abolitionist (Morgan Freeman) and a real estate lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) come to their rescue. But they're not enough to stand up to the bigotry and greed, and eventually former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) must join them. Other forces get involved, including the Queen of Spain (Anna Paquin). The case goes all the way to the Supreme Court, and the slaves are set free. It's an amazing true story, one that has been sadly neglected from the education of most Americans. I have never heard of it before now, and Steven Spielberg only heard of it a few years ago.

Amistad runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes, and there are few moments as powerful as its beginning. Spielberg gives us a courtroom drama that mostly avoids courtroom clichˇs such as we've seen in Francis Coppola's The Rainmaker and Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (as entertaining as both those films were). But, unfortunately, it doesn't avoid Spielberg clichˇs. Spielberg has been so successful for such a long time that he seems to have lost touch with his audience. He doesn't know how far to trust them, and so he coddles us, gives us more information than we really need. We're not allowed to get into the film and meet him halfway. Also, he seems to be relying on the same dramatic tricks he pulled out for Schindler's List four years ago. The worst scene in Schindler's List is toward the end, when Oskar Schindler gives a speech about how many more people he might have saved if he had pawned his watch or sold his car. The speech is given underneath thick layers of loud, overpowering music. That scene shocked me out of my connection with the movie up to that point and made me wonder what Spielberg had been thinking--it was as if he decided that after three hours, the audience didn't quite get the point. There are many similar scenes in Amistad, one being a sequence in which Cinque stands up in court and begins chanting (in English) "give us free." Spielberg lets it go on way too long, as if there are those dumb enough to not get it, and accompanies it with loud swells of drenching music. Is it possible he has learned nothing new or experienced nothing in the past four years to make him try something new?

The movie also shows us many scenes of Cinque telling stories and trying to learn what the white people are up to. Djimon Hounsou is a commanding and very powerful actor, but these scenes were overwritten. Some of them seem unnecessary to moving the movie forward. One of these scenes has Cinque and a comrade looking at the pictures in a Bible, trying to make sense of the story. It's a nice scene, but what does it have to do with anything?

For each weak scene, there are equally powerful scenes. A flashback in which Cinque describes his experiences on the slave ship gives us imagery disturbing and powerful enough to make us weep or close our eyes in shame. Other great scenes involve the powerful photography (by Janusz Kaminski, who also shot Schindler's List and Jerry Maguire), and the glorious acting. Anthony Hopkins leads the way with his showy jitterbug performance as Adams, and Matthew McConaughey is not far behind with his fired-up lawyer. Morgan Freeman is nothing less than beautiful in a quieter role. And then there is Djimon Hounsou, whose only experience before Amistad was some music videos and small parts in Unlawful Entry and Stargate. In smaller roles, Anna Paquin, Nigel Hawthorne, Stellan Skarsgard (from Breaking the Waves), David Paymer and Pete Postlethwait are all fine.

But I wonder about Spielberg. Four years ago he pulled a rabbit out of a hat and gave us Schindler's List right on the heels of Jurassic Park. All in one year, the best movie of the year and the highest grossing one. Now he seems fired up to repeat the same trick, but it's just that. The same trick. The Lost World was nearly unforgivable (it made $250 million, but I have yet to find anyone who liked it). Why does he feel the need to make bad B-movies in order to make a good movie? And now Amistad is the fourth plug-in for the equation, but we already know how it turns out (it's almost the same "formula" as Schindler's List, for lack of a better word). Why couldn't Spielberg have surprised us again and given us something truly spectacular? If you go back and watch Duel or Jaws you know that he was once talented and enthusiastic. He must be capable of that still. Or is he?

Nevertheless, Amistad is worth seeing just for people to know about this important story, this moment in history. But from the world's most powerful, successful and famous director, we expect more.

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