Steven Spielberg's most simplistic, sanitized history lesson, Amistad, explores the symbolic 1840s trials of 53 West Africans following their bloody rebellion aboard a slave ship. For most of Schindler's List (and, later, ... more »Saving Private Ryan) Spielberg restrains himself from the sweeping narrative and technical flourishes that make him one of our most entertaining and manipulative directors. Here, he doesn't even bother trying, succumbing to his driving need to entertain with beautiful images and contrived emotion. He cheapens his grandiose motives and simplifies slavery, treating it as cut-and-dry genre piece. Characters are easy Hollywood stereotypes--"villains" like the Spanish sailors or zealous abolitionists are drawn one-dimensionally and sneered upon. And Spielberg can't suppress his gifted eye, undercutting normally ugly sequences, such as the terrifying slave passage, which is shot as a gorgeous, well-lit composition. At its core, Amistad is a traditional courtroom drama, centered by a tired, clichéd narrative: a struggling, idealistic young lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) fighting the crooked political system and saving helpless victims. Worse yet, Spielberg actually takes the underlying premise of his childhood fantasy, E.T. and repackages it for slavery. Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), the leader of the West African rebellion, is presented much like the adorable alien: lost, lacking a common language, and trying to find his way home. McConaughey is a grown-up Elliot who tries communicating complicated ideas such as geography by drawing pictures in the sand or language by having Cinque mimic his facial expressions. Such stuff was effective for a sci-fi fantasy about the communication barriers between a boy and a lost alien; here, it seems like a naive view of real, complex history. --Dave McCoy« less
L. Shirley | fountain valley, ca United States | 11/04/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This review refers to the Dreamworks Doby Digital Edition..... Based on actual events, Steven Spielberg and Debbie Allen collaberate to bring us one of the many heartwrenching stories of the plight of Africans,during the illegal slave trade of the 1800's. A group of African people who were brutally draggged from their villages are being transported for slave trade. Only knowing that they are chained and mistreated one man,breaks loose and leads a rebillion against the ship's crew. In order to ensure their own freedom they must take the lives of their captors. They are discovered in American waters, and a trial ensues as to the question of murder. It becomes an international case. Everybody from the queen of Spain to the owners of the ship "Amistad" are claiming ownership of these men and women. Being pre-civil war, the abolishionists are also making a case for their freedom.This is a case that could lead America one step closer to Civil War. One property lawyer who has never worked on a case of this proportion, takes on the task of trying to prove that these are not plantation slaves,but citizens of Africa taken by force and did what they needed to do to be free, as any American would do the same. His task is a difficult one,but as the tragic story of these people unfolds he is able to put on his defense. They also get some help from the ex-president John Quincy Adams,whose eloquence puts the Declaration of Indepence to the test. This is a magnificent piece of cinema in all respects. Spielberg brings to our attention yet another important piece of history that was cruel and inhuman,one of American history that we were hardly aware of.It is an epic film that will wash over you with several different emotions, and you will want to watch it again and again. No big introduction needed for most of the cast who seemed perfectly fitted to their roles. Matthew McConaughey outstanding as the lawyer, Sir Anthony Hopkins is brilliant as Adams, Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgard are totaly believable as the abolishionists,and Pete Postlethwaite perfect as the lawyer for the prosecution. Also in a sterling performance is Djimon Housnsou as Cinque, the spokesperson for the Africans. His portrayal of the enslaved man who only wants his freedom will captivate you.I must also make mention of Nigel Hawthorn and David Paymer for their wonderful performances.The cinematography is breathtaking. The music scored by John Williams and especially the African music will stay with you long after the movie. You will also be impressed with the costume designs. The film was nominated for four Academy awards,including one for Best Supporting for Hopkins. The DVD is top quality.The Widescreen(Anamorphic) gives us an incredible view of everything going on in the courtroom scenes and on the ocean voyages. The picture does justice to the great cinematography. It is clear and crisp, colors are vibrant. Nighttime scenes are vivid as well. The 5.1 Dolby Dig surround fills the room. It can also be viewed in the 2.0 stereo. The special features,including a behind the scenes featurette are informative as well as entertaining. There is closed captions if needed. You will not be dissapointed with either the film or the DVD transfer, it is one that will be a great addition to your collection. Watch it again and again.......Laurie
also available in this Spielberg 2 pack:Saving Private Ryan/Amistad"
So what if history is made more entertaining?
Reginald D. Garrard | Camilla, GA USA | 06/10/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Have the critics of this film's historical "accuracy" never heard of "dramatic license"? If they had, then they would understand that Spielberg, like most of his profession, slightly alters history to make for greater theatrical effect or even heighten the events of the story. "Amistad" achieves both with scenes of horror combined with those of great poignancy that make for a total movie experience. While there are times when the film drags, the performances and the engrossing story itself make up for the few inadequacies. Though stars Morgan Freeman (especially riveting in the inspection of the Amistad scene), Anthony Hopkins, and Matthew McConaughey perform well in their respective roles, the best acting belongs to Djimon Hounsou, Razaag Adoti, and Abu Bakarr Fofanah as three of the Africans, and the underrated Pete Postlethwaite as prosecutor Holabird. Nigel Hawthorne, as the inept President Van Buren, and Peter Firth as a conscious-ridden British ship captain are also memorable. Spielberg skillfully balances a movie that is a courtroom drama mixed with an indictment against the slave system of America's past. The scenes of the events of the cursed "Middle Passage" are as graphic as is possible within the confines of Hollywood filmmaking. John Williams contributes a beautiful and understated score, just below the surface of the on-screen events, providing just enough to carry the story along."
Great story drowned in syrup
H. Schneider | window seat | 04/12/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)
"What an opportunity for a great film: the drama, the tragedies, the historical crossroads, the meaning for US history in the state of birth... I am often opposed to remakes, but this story would deserve a competent serious new version without the cute little Hollywood cliches and without the music that envelops everything in sugar coating. I am not sure which parts of the tale are historic and which are added by the script writer or Spielberg. I find it hard to believe in John Quincy Hopkins, and if the real man did make this speech, it was a great one and would have deserved to be acted without the horrible sentimental soundtrack. The whole part is such a terrible cliche, it almost does not matter if it is historically correct. The esthetic conventions of inferior Hollywood productions should be banned from serious subjects. (Was Martin van Buren really this awful as President?) I would still say, the film is worth watching, but it is so unsatisfactory."
An interesting period piece, but at times a bit maudlin
Ruth Henriquez Lyon | Duluth, Minnesota USA | 02/15/2000
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I was immediately drawn into this movie, and stayed drawn in; I wanted to know what the fate of the Africans would be. The fact that this case really happened, and that it generated such disturbing political issues, mark it as an important story in U.S. history. And because the plot was based on a story which did happen, I cannot agree with the criticisms of those who faulted the movie because it portrayed whites saving blacks. I cannot see how to make the story otherwise and remain true to the original case.
On the other hand, the scenes where the whites triumphed on behalf of the blacks were indeed maudlin and sentimental in presentation, and did seem to send a message of "See? Not all white people are so bad." Nonetheless, the portrait of Van Buren and the political scene of the time were strong reminders that there were plenty of whites at fault..........As for the criticisms by Hispanics that the movie portrays Spanish/Cuban people as villains, I do not see that.....As a person with Cuban ancestry, I think the movie portrayed pretty much what happened.....should Spielberg have tried to make the 2 Cuban slavers look sympathetic so as not to hurt Hispanic peoples' feelings? How should he have portrayed the queen of Spain? The Spanish royal family has always been subject to criticism, much of it from within Spain: look at the portraits painted by Goya of the Spanish court. The corruption of that institution could fill volumes.....
In viewing this film and then reading the reviews, one thing has become very clear to me: that both whites and minorities in this country still view history through their own special racial/ethnic lenses, and with a great deal of defensiveness....to move toward the values which Spielberg tried to put forth in Amistad, we must all strive for a little more objectivity....."
Some unpleasant historical truths explored
Linda Linguvic | New York City | 01/15/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is an important video to see. Based on the historical incident in 1839 of a group of 45 slaves who took over their ship, the Amistad, and wound up in Connecticut. This is a the story of slavery as only Steven Spielberg could tell it. And it is also the story of the United States of America headed toward civil war, the story of petty politics, and a serious debate in front of the supreme court with Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams.The film is full of those modern touches that make it so typical of movies of the late 1990's. Subtitles are used as the slaves speak in their own language and the Spanish crews speak in theirs. This adds an authenticity to the story. In contrast, another 1990s touch that detracts from its authenticity is that the slaves all look as if their well-muscled bodies were toned in modern gyms. The scenes of the Africans on the slave ship are the most moving that I have ever seen filmed. The chains are heavy and real, the terror and despair excruciating, the entire ordeal brought to the screen in horrifying detail. Contrasted to this are the Americans in Connecticut, doing their best to create this new country. There are abolitionists spouting moral values, lawyers debating whether the Africans are slaves or free people because of details of law, and an international treaty with Spain that is rife with politics.The video is three hours long, which could have been trimmed by at least an hour. The speeches get a little pompous sometimes and go on much longer than they need to. Morgan Freeman plays a role that has obviously been written in to show that there were some wealthy free blacks in that era, a role which should have been either expanded or eliminated.Although not perfect, this video should be seen. Sometimes it's easy to forget how young the United States actually is and how rooted in the past our politics are. Armistad certain deepens our understanding of this heritage and enlightens us about some unpleasant truths. Truths that we, as a people, need to look at."