Like few directors, Steven Spielberg has a remarkable skill with two distinct filmmaking approaches: serious cinema (The Color Purple, Schindler's List) and visceral blockbusters (Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park). His new film, Amistad, a story of real human pain and injustice combined with familiar Hollywood contrivances, is an amalgam of his two styles-weighty, penetrating themes and polished, big-budget visuals and effects.
The story takes place in 1839, when a Spanish slave-ship revolt becomes the basis for measuring America's ideal of freedom. Off the coast of Cuba, a brawny African man, known as Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), breaks free of his shackles and incites a jarringly dark and savage rebellion against his captors. Lacking navigational skills, the Africans entrust two remaining sailors to to steer the vessel, La Amistad, back to Africa. After two months at sea, Cinque and the rest discover they were tricked, as a U.S. Naval ship captures La Amistad off the coast of Connecticut. The Africans are taken to prison, where they await a succession of lengthy trials for murder and piracy.
First to come to their aid are Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman, with an underused Stellan Skarsgard by his side), one of the few fictional characters in the story and leader of the Abolitionist movement. Unable to enlist the help of former president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), Joadson settles for small-time property-claims lawyer Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey). As the trial gains more attention, it threatens to ruin incumbent president Martin Van Buren's re-election bid. Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), depicted here as a routine anything-for-a-vote politician, is concerned with appeasing the pro-slavery South, as well as the pubescent Queen of Spain (Anna Paquin, wasted in a throwaway role). Various sources claim ownership of the Africans as Baldwin tries to prove their origin. Eventually, Adams is convinced to assist the clearly innocent and mistreated Africans as the case makes its way to the Supreme Court.
Injustice and unsettling depictions of suffering take center stage during this unstable time in the young United States. The country is divided over the issue of slavery, and civil war appears inevitable. One of the film's strengths is the elaborate, and interestingly authentic, depiction of early American life and politics. Indeed, the film is endowed with convincing (and obviously expensive) production design and costuming. Scenes of the revolt, and a subsequent flashback to when Cinque was first captured, are genuinely distressing, dramatically simliar to the portrayal of prejudiced torment in Schindler's List. Amistad doesn't quite share that film's auteur sensibility-DreamWorks' second venture is compelled to deliver big Hollywood moments, as when a frustrated Cinque rises in court and shouts in broken English, 'Give us free! Give us free!'
Even with the broad historic scope of the film, one that reaches back to the founding fathers, Spielberg admirably never lets anyone take prominence over the character of Cinque. An imposing figure and a natural leader, Cinque is imbued with great emotion by newcomer Hounsou. Speaking virtually no English, Hounsou furrows his brow and flares his nostrils with the utmost intensity, as a man whose pride will never be taken. Hopkins is by far the other standout as Adams, an exasperated, noble ex-President perhaps living too long in the shadow of his father. His closing speech on moral, political and ideological freedom is nothing short of mesmerizing.
To its credit, the film doesn't get bogged down in courtroom dramatics, allowing the true story of Cinque and his impassioned struggle for freedom to unfold. Spielberg is more interested in developing Cinque's relationships with his lawyers and the manner in which they cope. Some potentially engaging opportunites are missed, though, as the relationship between inexperienced lawyer Baldwin and John Quincy Adams goes unexplored. Similarly, Freeman is given nothing to do but hover solemnly in the background of nearly every scene. But striking visual images-a silhouetted Cinque seething in front of a blazing fire and the opening lighting-lit close-ups of the rebellion-are Spielberg at his best. Amistad succeds in delivering a powerful message while never being dull.