Saturday 18 November 2023

Movie Review: Amistad (1997)

Genre: Historical Drama
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey, Djimon Hounsou, Morgan Freeman
Running Time: 154 minutes

Synopsis: In 1839, slaves being transported on the Spanish vessel La Amistad stage a mutiny, killing most of the crew members. The ship is eventually intercepted by the US navy and the slaves are held in New Haven. A legal case to determine their fate - murderers or freedom fighters - ensues, with political ramifications resonating all the way to the White House. Slave leader Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou), defence lawyer Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), abolition activist Joadson (Morgan Freeman), ex-President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), current President Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), Secretary of State Forsyth (David Paymer) and the young Queen of Spain (Anna Paquin) are all interested in shaping the outcome of the trial.

What Works Well: Director Spielberg and writer David Franzoni treat the historical events with reverential respect, connecting the lines between one mutiny, a broader national dilemma, international relationships, and a looming war. The flashback scenes of slave mistreatment prior to the mutiny are brutal, heartbreaking, and necessary. The complex trial machinations, arguments, and counter-arguments are patiently explained, and an impressive cast ensures prominence in every role. The rich production design brings the 1800s to life, from squalid marine conditions to White House grandeur.

What Does Not Work As Well: Excess defeats subtlety as every opportunity to over-dramatize is eagerly embraced, and John Williams' incessantly sappy music triple-underlines the Key Moments. Although an important narrative device, the language barrier is overplayed and frustrates the cinematic experience. The running time is drawn out by an over-elaborate John Quincy Adams climactic speech.

Conclusion: An impressively invested history lesson.

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