11 August 1998 | Sridhar
Powerful, gripping drama from Spielberg
What is freedom? How does one determine who is free? In 1839, those questions were more difficult to answer then they are now. Yet, the mistakes of our forefathers must be examined in order to rectify current situations.
That is, in essence, what Steven Spielberg's gripping drama "Amistad" is about. Through its various dramas, Spielberg presents a case about a group of Africans, who, after being seized from their home, were forced onto a ship and sent to the United States aboard "La Amistad". On their way there, the slaves, led by Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), rebelled, killing off part of the crew. However, the ship was still directed towards the United States, where the Africans were brought to trial under murder.
In the court, various factions claim ownership of the slaves, and therefore try to seize them away. The United States government, led by President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), and Secretary of State Secretary Forsyth (David Paymer), try to ship the Africans to Spain, where an 11 year old Isabella II (Anna Paquin) wants them back. The two Spaniards who own "La Amistad" want the slaves for themselves. The American ship that found the slaves also wants them. In the midst of this are two abolitionists (Stellan Skaarsgard and Morgan Freeman), who want the slaves to be free. They enlist the help of lawyer Matthew McConaughey, who tries to free them. Through various legal proceedings, the case appears before the Supreme Court, where it is argued by ex-President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins).
The film itself is a visual wonder. Spielberg favorite Janusz Kaminski sets the film in a dark, somber mood when appropriate, and a visual setting when appropriate as well. At times, the film is very slow, and very methodical. Spielberg is not at his finest here, the courtroom scenes have a tendency to lag. But Spielberg's finest work in the film, the opening scene, a scene of Cinque's family, and the brutal voyage of the slaves to America, is altogether stunning. It is this emotional force that carries the film. McConaughey is superb as the lawyer defending the Africans, Hopkins is sensational as the old Adams, Freeman is outstanding when used (Spielberg vastly under uses his supreme talents), and the rest of the cast is stellar. The movie, however, belongs to Hounsou. His emotional intensity is brilliant. Spielberg manages to make even the slowest scenes sparkle with focus on Hounsou, and the film's extraordinary power is simply captivating. The film is flawed, for most of the supporting characters are merely cardboard. But that doesn't matter. The story is a gripping one, and one of extreme importance. Kudos to Spielberg for finding it, finding the right men for the job, and letting the audience listen to the words of Cinque. A good job all around. ***1/2 out of 4, or an 8 out of 10.