Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Pete Postlethwaite, Nigel Hawthorne, Stellan Skarsgard. (1997, R, 155 min.)
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Dec. 19, 1997
Amistad is a disappointment if the standard for judging Steven Spielberg's new film is the state of mute, stumbling devastation that Schindler's List inspired in its viewers. The story it recounts, an 1839 slave rebellion aboard a Spanish ship bound for New England, is a historical obscurity, not an epochal horror on par with the Holocaust. We never stand close enough to evil to stare into its dead eyes or feel its moist breath against our faces. Though we get a few glimpses of ghastly brutality aboard the packed, airless ship we're appalled less by the atrocities themselves than the practical -- even pious -- arguments by which they're later rationalized. This is by no means a passionless film, though. Cinque, the rebel leader, is played by former model Hounsou, a mountainous figure who speaks in a gutteral roar and seems to embody the rage and confusion of an entire exploited continent. He's an overwhelming presence, just barely skirting comic-book superhero imagery at times, who also excels in scenes that require him to express subtler emotions either wordlessly or in untranslated Mende dialect. Most of the widespread critical carping about this film seems to focus on the series of hearings which air out the politically charged issue of who owns the slaves. These courtroom scenes are undeniably repetitious, static, and, until the end, focused on technicalities of maritime and international law. (Weirdly, the killings aboard the Amistad aren't the issue. Since the rebels are functionally equivalent to livestock they can't be charged with committing murder; the only question is whether anyone has a valid claim on them.) McConaughey, as a real estate lawyer named Baldwin who argues on behalf of abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Skarsgard), has also drawn more than a few raps for his low-keyed performance. But in the overall framework of the story, both his restraint and the tedium of the judicial proceedings buttress a vital point: In the period being dramatized, the economic considerations of slavery overwhelmed the moral ones. Baldwin is fighting this battle on the agreed-upon turf of property law. Only after being repeatedly thwarted by a politically craven President Van Buren (Hawthorne) do the abolitionists turn to an advocate (Hopkins, as former President John Quincy Adams) who dares raise the ultimate issues of innate rights and human bondage. Hopkins, overcoming bad makeup, floridly scripted lines, and John Williams' bombastic Weep, you bastards! musical score turns in some of his most masterful acting ever as the worn-out old statesman stoking the inner fires one more time in support of that “troubling and annoying” document known as the Declaration of Independence. The grandeur of these sentiments, and their expression by Hopkins, really turns the balance in favor of Spielberg's flawed but worthy film. However imperfectly, he has crafted another eloquent reminder that although goodness lives with a perpetual sense of weariness in its battle with the self-renewing power of evil, it can never retreat, never sleep.