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Amistad
1997 - R - 152 Mins.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Producer: Debbie Allen, Steven Spielberg
Written By: David Franzoni
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey
Review by: Marc Eastman
   
There are few more shining examples of the Spielbergification of a story than ‘Amistad’. Couple that with a story that starts out, PC derring-do aside, ultimately not that interesting, and a short six years after its release it is already quickly slipping into total obscurity.

‘Amistad’ is the story of a group of Africans abducted by their countrymen and sold (err... illegally) into slavery. They are taken from Africa to Cuba where they are purchased by two Spaniards. During the voyage from Cuba they manage to free themselves and kill many of their captors. The ship eventually ends up in an American port, and all manner of legal questions start flying every which way. The Spaniards claim to own them, and are backed up by the Queen of Spain, two hardly significant (storywise) sailors claim to own them by some right of salvage, and on the other hand we may just kill them because a good slave breaking his bonds and killing his owners is a dead slave breaking his bonds and killing his owners. Or something.

But as I said, these men are actually from Africa, and international slave trading is illegal at the time. If they can prove they’re from Africa, then they aren’t slaves, and are just abducted men who have every right to fight back against their abductors, and the myriad claims to their ownership go out the window. These are the times when, in an effort to get rid of slavery, the law and people’s ideas became more, not less, stupid. If we could just figure out what their address was, then we’d know if they were people or property.

‘Amistad’ comes to us, mainly, by way of two abolitionists, and a lawyer. The abolitionists are Lewis Tappan (the wasted Stellan Skarsgard) and Theodore Joadson (the wasted Morgan Freeman). The lawyer is Roger Baldwin (the ‘why the other two are wasted’ Matthew McConaughey). This team, fighting for the release of the slaves, is occasionally aided by ex-President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins). On the other side of the story (not the controversy) is Cinque (Djimon Hounsou - ‘Gladiator’, ‘The Four Feathers’), the leader of the ‘slaves’. The effort to establish communication between Cinque and those attempting to help him plays a central role.

At one point in the film Mr. Joadson goes to J. Q. A. for advice. Mr. Adams tells him to get Cinque’s story. You’ve proven he’s from Africa (though that’s neither here nor there at this point in the movie), but you don’t know his story. This is actually a pretty engaging scene, and in a better movie we might jump from this to (hold your breath) learning Cinque’s story. When Mr. Adams puts it to Mr. Joadson, he asks Joadson if ‘being a Georgian’ is his story. Of course it isn’t, and neither is ‘being from Africa’ Cinque’s story. Where we go with this in ‘Amistad’ is directly into a very Spielbergian account of how Cinque ended up where he is now. We witness Cinque waving to his wife, then suddenly having a net thrown over him, and then we watch a slew of clips from his journey with the slavers. In the end, we don’t know anything we didn’t already, we just know it in stunning detail.

The problem with the movie, and this particular episode, is that Mr. Adams’ point is that we need to move beyond the sticky legal points, and look at the people, but the movie never does move far from the legal mumbo jumbo. And how could it really? The story is about a legal case, but more importantly, there actually only is the law to look at. Within the first few minutes (that are past the introduction) of this overlong movie, we learn all we need to know in order to determine that within the laws of the time the men must be set free. The story is already over. All that remains is proving it, again and again, because lo and behold there are some people who don’t really want the truth to come out, and for really stupid reasons. No! People who want to keep slavery legal approach situations using something less than the most sound of reasons? You have been shocked, haven’t you?

For all the stumbling blocks thrown into the path of justice, and all the ‘oh no, not again’s the movie throws at us, we know how things are going to turn out at the very beginning. Had things turned out otherwise, the case would indeed have been historically significant as opposed to the footnote status it rightfully occupies. When the movie was released there was much said about how it tells a story that people ought to already know. One that should be taught in schools. It’s a good sentiment, and there are significant events in the history of slavery that should be taught in schools, but this isn’t one of them. At the time this case surely made the papers, and caused some pretty serious discussion, but everything does, at the time. The ultimate result of the case is that the Supreme Court ruled that according to law already in effect, it is obvious that.... That’s not interesting. What do we really learn in the end? There were a lot of stupid people, and a lot of stupid laws surrounding slavery? Consider me sold at the get go. That despite the stupid people, and stupid laws, a Supreme Court comprised of seven men who owned slaves themselves and only two who did not can come to a correct decision? Bravo. Truth be told, about the only thing in the movie that ought to be taught in schools (that isn’t sufficiently taught there already) is that those angered by slavery (and who isn’t?) should ALSO point some of that anger at a lot of people in Africa.

Another director might have made something of this movie by allowing himself to merely tell the story, but Spielberg cannot tell a story without trying to convince the audience of something (and attempting same as though convinced the audience is really stupid). He’s got nothing left to convince anyone of here. He’s too far down (or perhaps up) the moral ladder here, and he’s just spending a hell of a long time saying ‘slavery = bad’ as though he came up with the idea. Of course, that sums up just about everything that’s wrong with Spielberg. He simply shouldn’t delve into the realms of moralistic movies. ‘Catch Me If You Can’ is a movie that finds him in a place right where he should stay. It’s not that he’s ever ‘wrong’. It’s hardly possible. He’s always working on the simplest of ideas, taking something no one would disagree with in the first place, and then trying to prove it. Worse, as I said, there is always an undertone of condescension, as though he is the genius that figured something out, and he has to spell things out very carefully so de wittle audienth won’t get wost.

Worse still, the movie is filled to bursting with all the typical Spielberg ‘kicking the dog for the sake of kicking the dog’ moments. I don’t know if fifty slaves were tossed overboard to drown, I assume that’s accurate, but had it not really happened Spielberg would have invented it.


Of course, also like most any Spielberg film, there are positives. It looks great. The period of the movie is well done. There is even some fine acting. In fact, the acting is top notch all around. McConaughey does a good job with a demanding role, and Hopkins deserves most of the praise he has received. I didn’t fall in love with his final speech (being that it seemed to have nothing to do with the case at hand) as others did, but his performance was definitely a good one. I suppose it is a plus simply that you will learn this story, if you don’t already know it. It is an interesting story. It’s just not as historically significant as it wants to be. Either way, it’s not a very good movie.

We might view Mr. Adams as telling us that ‘it’s in the details’, and he’s certainly correct there. As simply a story of minor significance, nevertheless not lacking in human emotion, struggle, and bravery, this could be a very interesting story if we had a lot of details. But, as a story convinced of its historical importance, the details are boring.
 
Movie Guru Rating
Disappointing.  Had the right ingredients and should have been better. Disappointing.  Had the right ingredients and should have been better.
  2 out of 5 stars

 
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