Film review: Amistad

Message is fine, but Spielberg is too pretentious

Published: Friday, Dec. 12 1997 12:01 a.m. MST

Strip it of its historical trappings, and "Amistad" is really just another courtroom drama — a particularly manipulative one to boot. Which is ironic when you consider all the ongoing legal struggles surrounding it.

And like so many other "historically based" films being made these days, Steven Spielberg's new drama changes historical fact, and the screenwriter creates fictional characters, simply for the sake of convenience (similar to Spielberg's exceptional drama "Schindler's List," which this one definitely ain't).

Still, the film's central message regarding personal freedom is powerful, the acting by the nearly all-star cast is terrific and this is a story that definitely should be told on the big screen. It's unfortunate that the subject matter is presented in such a heavy-handed, even pretentious manner.

Based (at least partially) on the William Owens novel "Black Mutiny," "Amistad" purports to tell the true story of a revolt on the Spanish slaveship La Amistad in 1839. While en route to Cuba, African slaves overpowered and killed most of the ship's crew (depicted in the film's opening scene, which is much more graphic than what you'd normally expect from Spielberg).

Led by Cinque (Djimon Hounjou), the slaves change the ship's course, believing themselves to be bound for their African home — but instead they sail straight into the path of an American galley and are captured by its crew.

In chains again, the insurrectionists find themselves at the center of a bitter "custody battle" as it were, with Spain, Cuban officials and even two American sailors claiming rights to the Amistad's human "cargo." At

the behest of abolitionist Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), property attorney Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) agrees to represent the Africans.

To just about everyone's surprise, Baldwin successfully manages to shift the basis of the case from murder and mutiny to a matter of ownership and eventually wins the slaves' acquittal.

But President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) senses that the controversial verdict may cleave the country — which is still firmly divided on the issue of slavery — and also hurt his re-election bid, so he orders the Supreme Court to review the case. In desperation, Baldwin and Joadson are forced to bring in the big gun — former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), who has been advising them along the way.

The lengthy climactic scene that has Adams addressing the Supreme Court nearly salvages the entire movie, thanks to Hopkins' winning performance — despite its being marred by a particularly intrusive John Williams score.

His fellow actors are almost as good. Newcomer Hounsou brings the needed intensity to his role, while McConaughey displays his customary low-key charm. Unfortunately, Freeman doesn't get nearly enough to do, nor do Pete Postlethwaite and David Paymer, relegated to relatively minor supporting roles.

Most of their work is undone by Spielberg, who directs things as if he has a very tenuous grasp on the subject matter, and scripter Dennis Franzoni, who isn't above maudlin sentimentality and corny courtroom speeches.

Also, his script never addresses one particularly troublesome matter. In the film, Spielberg portrays the ship revolt in a brutally violent manner — showing the slaves butchering all but two of the ship's crew — and then tries to make heroes out of the Africans. Certainly their plight makes them sympathetic, but the circumstances of their mutiny definitely don't make them heroic.

"Amistad" is rated R for considerable violence and gore (most of it in the film's first 15 minutes), some full male and female nudity, a brief scene of gruesome torture and a couple of mild profanities.