Amistad

on December 10, 1997 by Wade Major
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Hoping to commercially and critically bookend 1997 as he did 1993, Steven Spielberg follows up his summer blockbuster "The Lost World" with the Oscar-tuned "Amistad," an epic telling of a remarkable 1839 shipboard slave revolt whose subsequent legal and social ramifications helped shape and forever change the mechanics of the young American political system.
The story begins at sea as a would-be slave named Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) frees himself from the hold of the Spanish slave ship La Amistad and leads his fellow prisoners in a bloody revolt that captures the vessel in a matter of minutes, killing all but two crew members needed to navigate them back to Africa. Where the Spaniards take them, however, is into the waters off Long Island where they are intercepted by an American naval vessel and imprisoned on charges of murder and piracy.
Fortunately for the Africans, the case is not nearly so simple as it seems. As a consequence of the incident's unusual particulars, a host of conflicting claims plunge the issue into heated political waters, capturing the attention of President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) whose re-election hinges on maintaining good relations with the increasingly suspicious and insecure South.
On the other side of the issue is a team of tireless abolitionists, including wealthy ex-slave Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), successful businessman Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard) and idealistic young attorney Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey).
While the ensuing trip through the tenebrous early American judicial system is often exceptionally engaging, it is the friendship between Baldwin and Cinque, who emerges as the leader of the Africans, that anchors the film's dramatic course. So effective is the presentation and development of the relationship, in fact, that no less a dramatic moment than the intercession of ex-president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) on behalf of the Africans makes for a curiously anti-climactic final reel.
Despite its occasional imperfections, however, "Amistad" must be regarded as a monumentally impressive achievement and further proof of Spielberg's ongoing maturation as an artist. Interspersed with the film's many dialogue-heavy courtroom scenes are a handful of staggering visual sequences, most notably an extended flashback detailing events on the "Amistad" prior to the revolt. To his credit, Spielberg's trademark devices and visual crutches are almost nowhere to be found, with only two embarrassingly saccharine outbursts marring the otherwise stoic proceedings.
Reachi ng the screen a full 13 years after producer Debbie Allen first optioned William Owen's non-fiction tome, "Black Mutiny," "Amistad" is also a refreshingly literate exercise, owing as much to David Franzoni's screenplay as to the Spielberg's direction. All but devoid of the simplistic sentimentality and preachiness with which emotional subject matter is often saddled, Franzoni's screenplay instead explores the complex moral ambiguities arising from a most remarkable and unusual incident.
It is likewise noteworthy that from amid the heavily star-laden cast, unknown West African native Djimon Hounsou emerges the lone standout. Uttering scarcely a word of English in the role, Hounsou exhibits a staggering screen presence throughout, overwhelming everything and everyone around him whenever on screen.
Technical credits, as expected, are boringly first-rate, featuring repeat excellence from usual Spielberg collaborators Michael Kahn, Rick Carter, Janusz Kaminski and John Williams, as well as from such newcomers to the cult as costume designer Ruth E. Carter. Starring Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Hawthorne, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, David Paymer, Pete Postlethwaite and Stellan Skarsgard. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by David Franzoni. Produced by Steven Spielberg, Debbie Allen, Colin Wilson. A DreamWorks release. Period Drama. Rated R for some scenes of strong brutal violence and some related nudity. Running time: 152 min
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