If “Empire Of The Sun” was the quintessential Steven Spielberg film, “Amistad” can be considered a caricature of his cinema. Just about every negative trait Spielberg’s critics – of which I am not – associate with his films can be found in it: Cloying sentimentality, transparent emotional manipulation, one-dimensional characters and a tragic/controversial/important passage of American history reduced to childish black-and-white morality with no interest in the characters as people with consciousness of their own.
In this case, the historical issue is slavery, treated here through the story of the slave revolt onboard the ship “Amistad” and the slaves’ subsequent trial in the United States; a trial that, if this film is to be believed, played a large part in precipitating the Civil War due to the recognition of the slaves as free individuals rather than private property.
The film starts promisingly enough, with the revolt itself, closely shot, darkly lit and exciting, carried by the considerable screen presence of Djimon Hounsou as the leader, Cinque. The dialogue alternates between Mende – the language of his people – and Spanish as spoken by the only two surviving slavers. The version I saw had Portuguese subtitles but I still understood the essentials of what was being said without much effort. As the slaves and slavers do not speak each other’s language, there is visible tension and we are allowed a little glimpse into their mindsets, as each party seeks freedom. However, that is about as morally complex as the film ever gets, and all subtlety goes out of the window as soon as they arrive in America.
The film’s complete disrespect for its audience’s intellect can be summed up in one single risible scene, during which prosecutor Holebird (the late, underrated Pete Postlethwaite) is interrupted by Cinque. Lit from the back by sunlight from the window, Djimon Hounsou’s head is shot with a slow pan that rises as he does, supported by a rising heavenly choir, as he repeatedly cries out : “Give us us free!”. Medium shots of moved black audience members, as well as a visible flying American flag outside the windows, complete this forced, unnatural picture.
It’s the kind of scene that you’d expect to find in a parody of Hollywood films. Every conceivable gimmick in the book is used to bully the audience into feeling something. Had this come from any interchangeable Hollywood yes man, I would have simply laughed. Instead, I felt bitter disappointment. This is exactly how Steven Spielberg’s detractors see his films: Infantilizing, ham-fisted and reeking of Hollywood phoniness. Hounsou might as well have been shouting “Give me my Oscar!”
Sadly, little of this is denied by the rest of the film. Take the scene in which Cinque is questioned by his lawyer Roger S. Baldwin (a charismatic Matthew McConaughey) and his interpreter Covey (Chiwetel Ejiofor, who would later go on to act in better films and TV series), as they try to convince him to tell the story of how he became a slave. It feels like an obedient step-by-step enactment of a passage from Joseph Campbell’s “Hero Of A Thousand Faces”: The hero is reluctant to take his journey, doubts his abilities and self-worth, and thus has to be convinced by the quest-givers:
- You’re a great man! You killed a lion! Your people look up to you!
- No I’m not, I’m a lucky man. I killed him by accident.
- Yes you are a great man! Now, tell us what happened!
- Okay then, here’s my flashback.
This flashback is another illustration of Spielberg at his worst: It tries to make a terrible thing – in this case, slavery – beautiful, exciting and aesthetically appealing. Not only does this approach fail, it is horribly misguided. It worked in “Empire Of The Sun” because that was a young boy’s adventure, a seen through his eyes. Thus it was perfectly acceptable for us to feel as excited, amazed and star-struck as he felt. This is not the case here. This is an adult’s story, an adult’s memories as recalled by that same adult. It’s supposed to be a key scene in which we’re confronted with the horrors of slavery for the first time. But aside from the bloody whipping of another slave, the horrors we see could almost pass for a Spielberg-directed TV commercial: Muted-out sound, elegant camera pans, flashes of blue-white lightning during storm scenes, lingering close-ups of faces and meaningful looks…and above all, John Williams’s wretchedly demonstrative score that is practically commanding us to feel emotions rather than gently accompanying the images. None of the sobriety and relative restraint Spielberg showed in “Schindler’s List” is found here.
This lack of subtlety is also present in David Franzoni’s simple-minded treatment of historical characters. President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) is reduced to a somewhat dim-witted buffoon more interested in his doomed reelection campaign than in the trial’s moral question. Anna Paquin, as pre-pubescent Spanish Queen Isabel II (Anna Paquin), is treated as just that, a pre-pubescent girl. As if to further cement this, the final shot of her character shows her jumping happily on her bed with her doll. Matthew McConaughey’s Baldwin seems initially promising, as he appears to be more interested in the challenge than in the cause, but that aspect of his character is quickly forgotten as he submits himself to the needs of the plot. Morgan Freeman, who for some reason got top billing, is utterly wasted, relegated to the background as a former slave-turned-lawyer, a character whose uselessness is all the more irritating when you know he’s a fictional creation.
That being said, none of these actors give bad performances. They’re just not provided with interesting characters. Indeed, aside from Hounsou, the only actor whose time does not feel wasted, and the film’s true saving grace, is Anthony Hopkins.
His performance as cantankerous old former President John Quincy Adams was rightfully nominated for an Oscar, and it’s easy to see why. With the right balance of dignity and mischief, he moves and wheezes along like a reluctant old lion, here to give his cubs one last lesson in something obvious to all but them, before going back to his rest. His final speech is so well acted it almost makes up for John Williams’s superfluous, cloying score. The same score also ruins an otherwise decent scene leading up to the speech, between Adams & Cinque. Spielberg and Williams apparently don’t have enough confidence in the performances of their actors or in David Franzoni’s dialogue.
Between this and “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”, 1997 was not a good year for Steven Spielberg.