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Amistad: Spielberg turns towards American history for his latest trials-of-life epic

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

In 1832, the African slaves aboard of the ship La Amistad break their chains, murder their captors, and sail back and forth across the Atlantic for two months before landing on the coast of Connecticut, where they are captured. They immediately become the center of a tempestuous legal, moral, and philosophical struggle. The state wants to try them for murder; the Spanish monarchy wants them returned (the Amistad was a Spanish ship); the people who captured the slaves claim salvage rights; and two of the surviving crew want their property restored to them. The ensuing legal battle draws in lawyers, abolitionists, slavery advocates, heads of state from the United States and Spain, and, most importantly, the Africans themselves. Steven Spielberg takes this spellbinding story and makes it into an excellent movie, although one that falls somewhat short of his 1993 drama Schindler's List.

Let's get the problems out of the way first, since they are easy to spot and list. The film starts with a cinematically electrifying sequence depicting the slave rebellion on board of the Amistad, but after that seems to wander aimlessly for the next half hour or so while trying to find its tone. Eventually Amistad decides to become a classical courtroom drama. It is compelling, but it certainly does not rank among the best (it's mighty hard to top Twelve Angry Men). In addition the move puts Amistad squarely in the middle of this overused genre turf, a trap that Schindler's List managed to avoid.

Schindler's List excelled as a piece of a powerfully visceral narrative and was fully engaging emotionally. Amistad, on the other hand, is much more of an intellectual experience: there are long legal speeches, multiple - albeit entertaining - courtroom scenes, and complex metaphors (most of which are apt and inspired, and even those that don't work, like the comparison of the Africans' plight to that of Jesus, provide enough material for some arresting images). This is strong material, but the emotional impact often feels diluted.

Amistad is also not as good as fleshing out the characters that we should feel sympathetic for. By the end of Schindler's List all the Jewish characters were clearly defined and distinct characters. I still remember more than a dozen of them, although I haven't seen the movie for three years. I saw Amistad three hours ago and already I the characters are beginning to blend together. This is especially the case with the slaves, which don't seem to have been well distinguished, with the important exception of Djimon Hounsou's Cinque.

While these lessen the impact of the movie somewhat, Amistad remains an excellent piece of work. There's an extended flashback in the very middle of the movie, when Cinque relates the whole mechanism of slave trade, that is brutally effective - I expect to have nightmares of it in the days to come.

The story itself, which in the end uses the Amistad case as a springboard to ponder the link between American ideology and history, is simultaneously engrossing, shocking, and blissfully non-obvious (unlike some recent movies, such as Rosewood, that tried to explore the same topics). Acting is excellent across the board with the possible exception being Morgan Freeman, who has one profound scene early in the movie, but practically disappears after that.

Technical aspects are similarly well polished: John Williams provides a singularly non-Williamsian (read: subtle) score, editing is top-notch, and cinematography is as unusual as it is effective.

Most unexpected for me was the major comic element: the Africans' struggles to understand the alien world. Their sarcastic comments to each other are frequently funny, and Anthony Hopkins somehow manages to make his John Quincy Adams (who came out from retirement to be the slaves' legal advisor) to be simultaneously heroic, senile, and comical.

Oh yes, "Amistad" is Spanish for "Friendship". Life creates all the best plots.

Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Written by David Franzoni.

Starring Morgan Freeman, Djimon Hounsou, Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey, and Nigel Hawthorne