Amistad (1997)

D: Steven Spielberg
S: Matthew McConaughey, Djimon Hounsou, Anthony Hopkins

When Steven Spielberg directed The Color Purple, it surprised many people. Though the film was sentimental and visually overwhelmed its source material, it was certainly interesting. It was a serious drama from a director whose previous work, while undoubtedly well crafted, was never credited with any degree of dramatic ambition. Amistad is another film in the same mould. But it doesn't surprise us now. Though it is certainly better than The Lost World, in the wake of Schindler's List, and what seemed to be a re-invention of his mise en scène to deal with powerful material with a steady, unobtrusive hand, it is, if anything, a rather a nasty surprise to see him revert to sentimental overstatement in dealing once again with material worthy of serious treatment.

The script details the mutiny by African captives aboard a Spanish ship in the 1830s and the subsequent legal battle which ensued in the American courts concerning their status as slaves or as people and consequent potential rights. Bookish property attorney Matthew McConaughey takes on Governmental opposition on behalf of the abolitionist movement to ensure their freedom, eventually enlisting the help of former President of the United States, John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins).

Somewhere around half way through, Hopkins tells beleaguered abolitionist Morgan Freeman that the trick to being a lawyer before a jury is "whoever tells the best story wins." Though this would seem to have been Spielberg's motto since the 1970s, somewhere along the way, Amistad loses the plot. It may be something to do with the war over the script which erupted on the film's release, but credited writers William Owens (author of the book) and David H. Franzoni (and uncredited Steven Zaillian) seem to have become confused about just what the story is, even though they seem pretty sure about what it wants to say.

It moves in several directions at once in a desperate attempt to placate those who would still object to the insertion of an African legacy in the formation of the United States, and to appease those who would insist on it. It is ultimately a film about the role played by the Amistad incident in the build up to the Civil War, and therefore posits an unusual place for Africans in the formation of the nation. They are likened to the rock described by Mende captive Djimon Hounsou with which he killed a lion by sheer luck. The Amistad Mende themselves become the rock with which the evils of slavery are brought down by John Quincy Adams. The result is an inflated finale involving Hopkins addressing the Supreme Court, and the gradual sidelining of each of the other characters who have played a part in the unfolding of the drama to that point.

It is sometimes difficult to ascertain just who the central character is. Though McConaughey Djimon Hounsou hold most of the screen time, neither emerges as much of a challenge for Hopkins playing such a weighty historical personage. Morgan Freeman suffers particularly badly, all but disappearing from the narrative after some establishing scenes and speaking less and less dialogue as the film goes on. But likewise McConaughey is forced to sit placidly during the bloated climax whilst Hopkins makes the most of a showy role designed to win him a Best Supporting Actor award and presumably evoke questions of national pride and national identity for American citizens. Hounsou emits a strong presence as the Mende spokesman, but despite Hopkins' constant deferral to him during the climactic speech, the moment is all Adams', as indeed it should be from a traditional historical perspective.

This is a problem the film can't overcome, and which eventually sinks it. It is not an African story, just one with an African dimension. It is also a story of larger than life statesmen and monumental history, not of the minor players who did all the work and bore the brunt of the reality. As free as a storyteller should be to delve into history and bring to light its forgotten characters and dimensions, the demands of Hollywood historiography are that great men forged a great nation, and in dealing with any historical subject, it is impossible to avoid the major players. Amistad clumsily attempts to find a human angle, and integrate some personal stories with the discussion of the fundamental right to freedom which defines the film and the country itself. But it becomes a lecture on that right and is too pleased with itself to see that it has not earned the emotional respect to make one.

The problem is that it is so obvious that Spielberg is trying to push our buttons that we pull back from him and get hostile. The film is so overbearingly 'important' and 'serious' that despite some moments of humour and some interesting scenes, it becomes quite obnoxious. As you would expect, the details are rendered with skill and care, and the costumes, production design, cinematography, sound, score and other artistic and technical credits are up to par. But they add up to less than the sum of their parts largely due to the script, but also due to Spielberg's insistence on treating it with the kind of 'message movie' autopilot he employed in The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. And like both of those films, Amistad is far from without merit and contains some striking scenes and moments. But the standard to which he will be forever compared is now Schindler's List, and unfortunate and unfair as that may be for a director who is still active, he seems unlikely to surpass it if this is the best he now has to offer.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.