Amistad

Amistad is a great story on paper. In 1839, the Cuban slave ship La Amistad is carrying a full cargo of Africans across the Atlantic. One of the slaves, called Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou), uses a nail to pop his shackles open and frees his fellow captives, leading them in a bloody mutiny. The ship winds up not back in Africa but off the coast of Connecticut, where the Africans are arrested. A group of well-meaning abolitionists buzz around the case like moths around a flame. The fate of these Africans, the abolitionists realize, will be the fate of democracy itself.

Given this material, and given the director — Steven Spielberg, who proved with Schindler’s List that he has the chops for vivid, unblinking historical filmmaking — it’s more than a little shocking how remote, impersonal, and flat-out boring Amistad is. Except for the scenes aboard the ship, which have a feral power comparable to the liquidation sequence in Schindler’s List, the movie is dry and dawdling, haphazardly structured, and grindingly obvious. There are those, I assume, who will insist that the message that slavery is bad needs to be hammered home every so often. Fine. But noble goals don’t make a dull film interesting.

The ugly flashes of atrocity we see late in the film, as Cinqué relates the suffering of the Middle Passage, are also the only flashes we get of Spielberg the great director; elsewhere in this long movie, his crackling storytelling is nowhere evident. Instead we get Spielberg the emotional bully (coating “uplifting” scenes with John Williams’ ickiest score in years) and Spielberg the dutiful teller of someone else’s story. I never felt that he was engaged in the material — except when he stages the sadism aboard the ship (which, if you think about it, is a bit disturbing).

Amistad devotes itself to scene after scene of drably attired white guys arguing over what should be done with the Africans, where they came from, etc. The Africans themselves are generally a faceless, abstract bunch, and even Cinqué is never quite real to us. Djimon Hounsou, a model, has an imposing presence and goes as far as David Franzoni’s sketchy script allows, which isn’t far. At times, Spielberg comes close to fetishizing Cinqué’s stoic, noble blackness; Cinqué is like an African superhero in a comic book, and we get no sense of his life before slavery or what the experience has done to him besides make him stronger. Many, many other slaves aboard the Amistad suffer and die, but he survives, apparently because he’s just so darn photogenic. He’s never more than an icon of endurance.

The whites are just as blurry. Matthew McConaughey, as the passionate legal eagle Roger Baldwin, comes off as a 19th-century version of a John Grisham hero. Fine actors like Nigel Hawthorne and Pete Postlethwaite drop in and out of the movie without making a ripple; David Paymer narrowly beats McConaughey for the title of Least Plausible Actor in a Period Setting. Morgan Freeman gets top billing as an abolitionist who stands around thinking important things — at least I assume that’s what he’s doing, because he doesn’t do anything else.

I can marginally recommend Amistad for one performance: Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams, the ex-president who lumbers out of retirement to defend the Africans before the Supreme Court. As usual, Hopkins is borderline hammy, but his showmanship is like a jolt of caffeine; when he commands a guard to remove Cinqué’s shackles, his voice has the snap of unquestionable authority. That’s what’s missing from the rest of Amistad (which could have used a whole lot more of Hopkins).

In other movies, whether serious or escapist, Steven Spielberg has shown that same kind of authority — in the clarity and economy of his filmmaking. We felt that he knew what he was doing and why. In Amistad, we sense him stumbling around the subject, trying to figure out what he’s doing and why. While this might be an interesting way for an experimental artist to work, it doesn’t suit a master entertainer like Spielberg. We don’t know what he’s doing or why, either, and before long the movie just dries up and blows away.

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