There is much to admire In Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, a sprawling historical film that starts with the bloody 1839 revolt of African slaves aboard La Amistad, a Spanish owned slave ship . Wanting to sail the ship to their homeland, the slaves get hopelessly lost and are captured off the New England coast, where they are brought to trial for piracy and murder in Connecticut . The slaves are appointed a young attorney (played by the all too modern Matthew McConaughey, in whom Spielberg may have found his new Richard Dreyfuss) who is put in the dubious position of defending the slaves according to the laws governing property. Do they belong to the pre-pubescent Queen Isabella of Spain (Anna Paquin), the Cuban slave-traders – or are they free?
For the most part the film is excellent, and it’s nice to see Spielberg nurturing his inner David Lean and leaving the raptors alone. The performances here are varied; Morgan Freeman is given little to do (and looks distinguished doing it), Djimon Hounsou as the slave leader Cinque is effective, and Anthony Hopkins as the aging John Quincy Adams seems intent on becoming the new Charles Laughton, playing the ex-president as an old codger doddering in his greenhouse and idly dispensing wisdom. Speilberg, however, made some wrong moves. For example, there is a jaw-dropping scene where the Mende-speaking slaves interpret the Bible by it’s illustrations that is embarrassingly out of place, naive and insulting (how quickly the slaves grasp the concepts of Christianity!) John Williams’s horrible Muzak soundtrack distracts from Hopkins’ wonderful courtroom speech, and ruins at least one scene by drowning it in a heavenly choir.
Still, it’s a good film with a mannered directing job by Spielberg and a visual style eerily reminiscent of a much better film about revolt and martyrdom, Gillo Pontecorvo’s brilliant 1968 film, Burn! with Marlon Brando.