Amistad

Newcity Chicago

DIRECTED BY: Steven Spielberg

REVIEWED: 12-15-97

Hey, as it turns out, slavery was bad! After blowing the lid off of the Holocaust (yes, as it turns out, that was bad, too), Steven Spielberg applies his Oscar-honed instincts to yet another epoch of history, and the results are painful. A group of Africans are abducted from their homeland and taken across the ocean in the eponymous slave ship. A mutiny and bloody takeover follows, and the Africans are jailed in America, where a young lawyer (Matthew McConaughey; bad hair, worse accent) takes up their cause. The case ends up before the Supreme Court, where cranky old John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins, in high honey-glazed form) pleads for the Africans. It's a compelling enough story, with the potential for a great film, but in Spielberg's oddly unemotional hands, it plays as a series of poorly constructed cliffhangers with pat solutions. A detached and cold film, even colder than "The Lost World," "Amistad" has none of the passion of "Schindler's List." The portrayal of the Africans ranges from cartoonish to wholly condescending. In one truly bizarre sequence, Spielberg has his African characters look over pictures in a Bible as though they were E.T. cooing over a Speak-and-Spell. As is the case with too many films of this ilk, the story is more about The White Guys than anything else. The young white lawyer's struggle is viewed with more passion than that of the struggle of the unjustly imprisoned, and the doddering ex-President's triumph is clearly more important than that of the Africans. Most of the cast seems in need of serious caffeine -- most disappointingly, Morgan Freeman -- and the only good performance in the film belongs to newcomer Djimon Hounsou, in a thankless role that doesn't deserve his energy. Spielberg's collaborators seem to have phoned in their work as well, with Janusz Kaminski's inconsistent and often flat cinematography, John Williams' forgettable score and an overall stultifying pace. With the exception of the terrifically gory mutiny sequence that opens "Amistad," this is resoundingly disappointing work. Expect multiple Oscars.

--Nick Digilio

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Other Films by Steven Spielberg
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Columbo (tv)
Saving Private Ryan
The Lost World

Film Vault Suggested Links
The Madness of King George
The Winslow Boy
Les Miserables

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