James Berardinelli pointed it out best, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is to Jurassic Park what Amistad is to Lost World. I hope that this is a short cycle for Spielberg, because the first cycle was a lot stronger than this second one. Jurassic Park was a lot more fun than Lost World, and Schindler’s List is a lot stronger than Amistad. If this is a cycle for Spielberg it looks as if the cycle is getting weaker.
This is not to say that Amistad is not a great movie, it’s just not as great as Schindler’s List. Amistad is a good movie that stands not on its plot and story but on the performances of its leads; Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins, and to a lesser extend Morgan Freeman.
Spielberg opens the film with a harrowing sequence on how slaves take over the ship that they are being shipped on, La Amistad. The sequence is very graphic and shows clearly the feelings of the slaves towards those who have taken them slave. After this the slaves try to sail the ship back to their home country with the help of the captain. They though end up in Connecticut where groups of different people, with different agendas, argue about the “ownership” of these slaves. This includes the Prime Minister from Spain representing the prepubescent Queen – in which Spielberg handles with some good humour and irony. But the real fight is between the Attorney General of the United States and a small time properties lawyer Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey). The Attorney General is fighting on “behalf” of the United States and Spain. The current President at the time wants to avert a civil war from this situation and in doing so also make Spain happy. Baldwin wants to set the slaves free after he befriends one of them, Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) the leader of the group.
Anthony Hopkins, starring as former President John Quincy Adams, has a small introduction in the beginning and then is forgotten for almost half the film. I wish that it wasn’t so, but I guess you can’t change history. Hopkins is just wonderful as the former President, injecting into the character a large dose of humour.
Newcomer, Djimon Hounsou, gives a great performance as the leader of the slaves, Cinque. His strong stubborn performance is one that is inspiring. You latch on to his cause and that is what really carries the film.
McConaughey, whom we last saw in this summer’s Contact, gives a good performance as the lawyer who wants to free the slaves, Baldwin. And Morgan Freeman is given a somewhat smaller part as Theodore Joadson an abolitionist who first brings up the case of the slaves to Baldwin. Freeman who is always a strong screen presence does well, though he is not given enough screen time. The star of the film is Hopkins though, his performance is the staple of the film.
Spielberg makes a good film with Amistad, but it doesn’t top Schindler’s List. I found that there was no real antagonist in Amistad, the only real antagonist is the idea of slavery. The mid-portion of this film where Cinque recounts how he had been brought into slavery is again like the opening sequence. This sequence is disturbingly frank and the audience is forced to sit through the sequence because as the audience knows, it’s all too true.
Spielberg is able to bring an emotional closing to the film through Hopkins' speech. And again, I stress, Hopkins' performance in Amistad is the one that holds the film together. This performance is Oscar material, and I hope that he gets honoured for it. What I did like was that Spielberg was able to insert different pieces of humour throughout the film to let out some tension and to stir things up again. This was a good move from Spielberg for such a long film.
Worth mentioning is John Williams' score for the film, which like all his scores is brilliant.
Amistad is not a great film, but it is a good film that is worth watching on the big screen. It is a good return for Spielberg after his special effects driven and plot less dinosaur romp Lost World. It’s also the first film directed by Spielberg out of the DreamWorks SKG production house and it is a good release at that. Don’t miss Amistad on the big screen.