Monday, March 10, 2008

Monday Movie Review: Amistad

Amistad (1997) 6/10
On a slave ship heading for America, the captive Africans rebel, led by Cinque (Djimon Hounsou). Recaptured once they reach the United States, two abolitionists (Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgård) hire an attorney (Matthew McConaughey) to defend the Africans. The case goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it is argued by John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins). Directed by Stephen Spielberg.

I don't know, I feel like not liking Amistad is probably like not liking apple pie or my Mom or Family Values or cute babies. But Geez Pete, I'm sorry. I really do love my Mom, you know.

Amistad is an exercise in self-importance. Everyone in it is hyper-aware that they are in an Important Historical Drama and This Story Must Be Told. It really is that heavily capitalized throughout. Freeman proves that he can be a Magical Negro even in a movie with lots of other blacks. Hopkins validates the Academy's ability to nominate a great actor's worst performance. And by the way, John William's score sucks.

Look, this is kind of a beautiful story. It's definitely a page from history that very few Americans are taught. It's a fascinating and complex story that deserved to be told. It's just that the filmmakers were far too self-aware of all that. The two and a half hour runtime felt interminable. At least 30 minutes were consumed by Dramatic Close-ups, Meaningful Slo-Mo, and Moments When the Music Swells. Seriously. The score punctuated every important moment with HUGE swells, often with a choir of quasi-religious voices going WILD WITH JOY. It was really all too much. I watched it alone and felt like blushing.

The period is captured beautifully. The visuals are stunning. The time spent on the slave ship is breathtaking and incredibly disturbing. The politics of the events; the attitude of President Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) and of other politicians towards Adams, the maneuvering between North and South, between the U.S. and Spain, all of this is enormously interesting. And clearly it didn't need to be, it could have stopped the movie cold, but it added flesh and sense to the tale. I admire the sweep of the film, to take on so much complexity and so many facets of the story and still create something cohesive. Spielberg is certainly a professional!

Kudos to Matthew McConaughey for holding his own among a bunch of heavy hitters and keeping his shirt on, to David Paymer for being one of Hollywood's true work horses, and to Hounsou for a dignified and clear performance.

I highly recommend reading a book or encylopedia entry about this incident, and avoiding the film.

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