Director Steven Spielberg is undeniably one of the most popular and certainly the most commercially successful film maker of all time. With features such as "Jaws," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and the "Jurassic Park" films under his belt, Spielberg has had unequaled success, with his films raking in several billion dollars at the box office. Whenever his name is attached to any big budget film -- particularly during the summer season -- audiences assume they're in for a fun ride and rush to the theater.
Yet his early attempts at making "serious" features often met with lukewarm success, both critically and commercially. "The Color Purple" was critically lauded, but of its many Oscar nominations, his wasn't one of the names included. Other films, such as "Empire of the Sun," were considered to be disappointments by many. While Spielberg was nominated for best director for his films "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "E.T.," he never won and some believed him to be jinxed by his early, and in some eyes, jealously inducing success.
The question that most likely haunted him for years was whether he could direct a film that would finally earn him the full respect of his peers, the critics, and audiences alike. Of course the film that did that for him was "Schindler's List," his moving 1993 epic. Sweeping the Oscars and finally winning him the big trophy, Spielberg's personal, emotional investment in the film paid off for him.
With the Oscar monkey off his back, Spielberg was free to tackle any project he cared to direct. After delivering another "Jurassic Park" film that certainly didn't tax his creative skills, he decided to go serious again with "Amistad." Based on the true life events of a slave ship rebellion that became an early catalyst for the American Civil War, many questioned whether he could do for slavery what he did for the Holocaust. The results, in our opinion, are a mixed bag, but stem more from the limitations of the actual story than with Spielberg's handling of the material (although his obvious and occasionally manipulative efforts diffuse some of the film's momentum).
Half courtroom drama and half character study, it's the legal stuff that lacks any real pizzazz. Aside from the stirring speech by Hopkins (playing former President John Quincy Adams) toward the end, the court scenes are mildly interesting, but certainly not invigorating. Audiences used to legal shenanigans and fireworks will find this material rather blase, which again can mostly be attributed to the real life incidents. Such proceedings, while obviously necessary for the plot, only make the film feel much longer than its nearly two and a half hour duration.
Likewise, the slavery issue, while certainly tragic and inhumane, lacks the ghastly behavior that fueled "Schindler's List." In that film, Ralph Fiennes personified the impersonal horrors. In this film, such moments are anonymously brutal, but feel that they've been placed there just to prod our emotions. Yes, what happens is horrific, but the heavy-handed manipulation and the fact that we have seen the plight of slavery many times before, especially in the superb TV miniseries "Roots," diffuses the impact of these scenes.
That problem is offset, however, by getting to know the characters personally, and the group- appointed leader, Cinque, becomes our focal point for their plight. It's his story (as reiterated by Hopkins' character) that's most important, and it's during those moments when we learn about his trials and tribulations that the story has resonance. Djimon Hounsou is quite impressive in this role, and easily stands out with one of the film's better performances.
Hopkins is brilliant as usual, delivering an interesting take on the former president, but one only wishes he had more screen time with which to explore that character. Freeman, who almost always brings a reserved dignity to nearly any feature he's in, isn't given much to do other than be the token older black man the Africans can't quite figure out. McConaughey, despite his period muttonchops and appropriate apparel, never quite seems to fit into this period piece. While most everyone else feels like 19th century characters, McConaughey seems misplaced, as if transported there from a more modern time. He delivers an okay performance, but something about him just didn't feel right.
Spielberg's direction and David Franzoni's screenplay are competent and offer some nice touches throughout the film. On the other hand, they're also occasionally guilt every so often of some heavy handed symbolism as briefly mentioned above. A scene where two Africans have figured out the Bible by its pictures is nicely done in a technical sense, but equating these men's lives to Jesus (rather blatantly done, we must add) doesn't ring true. It has too much of a twentieth century politically correct feel to it, although it does work somewhat on an emotional level. A few other scenes come across the same way, including one where Cinque, with the bright light (of justice) behind him says, "Give me free." Yes, it stirs ones emotions, but that's diffused by the way it's artificially forced on us.
Likewise, Spielberg gives us a "Schindler's List" type of scene showing the massive dehumanization these people went through, where they're treated like farm animals and forced into one big squirming pile of indignity. That scene in particular, while horrible to watch, felt the most forced of any in the movie. It certainly reeks of attempting to manipulate the audience's emotions -- especially by having the innocent victims be nude (as in "Schindler's") to emphasize their vulnerability. None of that's helped by composer John Williams sweeping, but similarly manipulative score.
Overall, the film works in an artistic sense -- the technical specs are good and the cast members all deliver decent performances -- but it never connects into your gut like "Schindler's List" did. It does have a few shining moments, as well as a handful of horrific ones, but it just never seemed to quite click for me. I wanted to be swept away by the experience, and while I can critically admire what was on the screen, it just seemed to keep me at a distance. Definitely too long at nearly two and a half hours, the film would have benefitted from some judicial editing. While everything about it is competent, this production just never quite takes off, either dramatically or emotionally. Some viewers will find it horrendous, but ultimately uplifting, while others will think it's above average, but certainly not great. We fall in with the later group and thus give "Amistad" a 7 out of 10.