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Amistad reminds me of Classics Illustrated comic books. Classics Illustrated was one of the longest running comic book titles in history, lasting thirty years and encompassing titles such as Moby Dick, Les Miserables, Robinson Crusoe, and many others. Of course, it never served as a replacement for the original works of literature. At best, it served enthralling visualizations of the most visually compelling scenes from great novels. However, it could only hint at the complexities. That's how I also feel about Amistad. It wasn't based on a great work of literature, but it feels like it was--or at least that's how Spielberg films it. Every scene is hyped for maximum value. For example, we don't just get a group of captive Africans chanting (in their limited understanding of the English language) "Give us free!"; we also get a full chorus joining in on the soundtrack, lending the moment an operatic intensity. Similarly, Spielberg can't resist giving us faces framed in neon blue shafts of light and spirals of rain drops. Like a kid who grew up learning about culture by reading comic books, he prefers the easy and melodramatic over the complex and the ambiguous.
Whenever Spielberg decides to make a "serious" movie, he tends to grab a huge topic, such as the holocaust (as in Schindler's List) or slavery (as in Amistad). He needs the huge topics so he can be ensured that he's dealing with "important," weighty subjects. Then he can put the emphasis on staging the scenes, the camera shots, the lighting--instead of the characters themselves. With Schindler's List, however, he gave us compelling personal dramas being played out against the big issues, with Ralph Finnes as the self-loathing German prison camp commandant and Liam Neeson as the industrialist who makes absolution for exploiting his Jewish workers. But Amistad lacks the compelling smaller scale drama. Virtually every scene in Amistad feels weighty and significant, and in the process the human characters tend to get lost--particularly so for Matthew McConaughey's lawyer and Anthony Hopkins' John Quincy Adams. Only Djimon Hounsu as an African captive of the slave ship Amistad emerges with a full-blooded character. He plays a humble man ("I'm not a big man--just a lucky one," he says) who doesn't see himself as the savior of his fellow captives. But the rest of Amistad swells with assured confidence, as if the subject matter itself is enough to deserve our attention. And it does deserve attention: Amistad deals with a fascinating chapter in world history, a chapter strangely absent from history books.
The movie tells the story of an insurrection aboard a slave ship named Amistad. Off the coast of Cuba, the African captives break loose from their shackles and take over the ship. They spare the lives of two crew members and insist they be returned to Africa. Instead, however, they are tricked and after two months sailing up the Eastern seaboard, the Amistad is captured by a U.S. naval ship. Soon afterwards, the Africans are charged with murder and piracy. President Martin Van Buren's advisors bring this situation to his attention but he's in the middle of a re-election campaign: "There are three or four million negroes in this country. Why should I concern myself with these 44?" Meanwhile, the court case is complicated with the claims of the original "owners," the demands of the Queen of Spain, and the naval officers who want to claim salvage rights.
This long lost chapter of American history is vividly rendered by Spielberg. Particularly effective are the scenes aboard the slave ship. We learn about the horrific living conditions, where slaves were instantly expendable. If a slave ship might be captured (new slave shipments were forbidden in America by the 1830s), the crew might chain together the captives and send them plummeting into the ocean--the better to escape prosecution in American courts.
Spielberg provides the film with a powerful historical sweep, but the characters themselves remain just vague outlines. Matthew McConaughey in particular seems out of place. With his glasses sitting on his nose and his lips pursed, he oozes the 1990s and quickly becomes an annoying anachronism. Anthony Hopkins, likewise, is given a character whose life outside the courtroom is virtually irrelevant. Meanwhile, the filmmakers only allow us to get close to one of the African captives. "What you haven't bothered to discover is who they are," says John Quincy Adams in a shrewd bit of observation, for by discovering the humanity in the captives and communicating the individual histories in the court room, the captives stop being property and become people with free will. But Adams' statement could also apply to the filmmakers, for they haven't looked very deep into the characters that they created.
In one of the movie's more incredulous developments, a Bible ends up in the hands of the captives, and by looking at the illustrations in the Bible, the African's begin to piece together the story of Jesus. Before the movie is over, they are well on their way to Christian conversion--all by simply looking at the pictures. The story would have us discard the original religious beliefs of the African captives--all for the power of the drawings in the Bible. Unfortunately, that's also how Amistad works: Spielberg's impressive "pictures"--like wonderfully drawn panels in a Classics Illustrated comic book--look great, but they fail to get inside the characters, and in the process, trivialize the subject matter.
[rating: 3 of 4 stars]