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Overall Rating

Awesome: 22.41%
Worth A Look: 18.97%
Pretty Bad: 24.14%
Total Crap: 8.62%

3 reviews, 40 user ratings

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by Rob Gonsalves

2 stars

'Amistad' is a great story on paper. In 1839, the Cuban slave ship La Amistad is carrying a full cargo of Africans across the Atlantic. One of the slaves, called Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou), uses a nail to pop his shackles open and frees his fellow captives, leading them in a bloody mutiny. The ship winds up not back in Africa but off the coast of Connecticut, where the Africans are arrested. A group of well-meaning abolitionists buzz around the case like moths around a flame. The fate of these Africans, the abolitionists realize, will be the fate of democracy itself.

Given this material, and given the director -- Steven Spielberg, who proved with Schindler's List that he has the chops for vivid, unblinking historical filmmaking -- it's more than a little shocking how remote, impersonal, and flat-out boring Amistad is. Except for the scenes aboard the ship, which have a feral power comparable to the liquidation sequence in Schindler's List, the movie is dry and dawdling, haphazardly structured, and grindingly obvious. There are those, I assume, who will insist that the message that slavery is bad needs to be hammered home every so often. Fine. But noble goals don't make a dull film interesting.

The ugly flashes of atrocity we see late in the film, as Cinqué relates the suffering of the Middle Passage, are also the only flashes we get of Spielberg the great director; elsewhere in this long movie, his crackling storytelling is nowhere evident. Instead we get Spielberg the emotional bully (coating "uplifting" scenes with John Williams' ickiest score in years) and Spielberg the dutiful teller of someone else's story. I never felt that he was engaged in the material -- except when he stages the sadism aboard the ship (which, if you think about it, is a bit disturbing).

Amistad devotes itself to scene after scene of drably attired white guys arguing over what should be done with the Africans, where they came from, etc. The Africans themselves are generally a faceless, abstract bunch, and even Cinqué is never quite real to us. Djimon Hounsou, a model, has an imposing presence and goes as far as David Franzoni's sketchy script allows, which isn't far. At times, Spielberg comes close to fetishizing Cinqué's stoic, noble blackness; Cinqué is like an African superhero in a comic book, and we get no sense of his life before slavery or what the experience has done to him besides make him stronger. Many, many other slaves aboard the Amistad suffer and die, but he survives, apparently because he's just so darn photogenic. He's never more than an icon of endurance.

The whites are just as blurry. Matthew McConaughey, as the passionate legal eagle Roger Baldwin, comes off as a 19th-century version of a John Grisham hero. Fine actors like Nigel Hawthorne and Pete Postlethwaite drop in and out of the movie without making a ripple; David Paymer narrowly beats McConaughey for the title of Least Plausible Actor in a Period Setting. Morgan Freeman gets top billing as an abolitionist who stands around thinking important things -- at least I assume that's what he's doing, because he doesn't do anything else.

I can marginally recommend Amistad for one performance: Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams, the ex-president who lumbers out of retirement to defend the Africans before the Supreme Court. As usual, Hopkins is borderline hammy, but his showmanship is like a jolt of caffeine; when he commands a guard to remove Cinqué's shackles, his voice has the snap of unquestionable authority. That's what's missing from the rest of Amistad (which could have used a whole lot more of Hopkins).

In other movies, whether serious or escapist, Steven Spielberg has shown that same kind of authority -- in the clarity and economy of his filmmaking. You felt that he knew what he was doing and why. In "Amistad," you sense him stumbling around the subject, trying to figure out what he's doing and why. While this might be an interesting way for an experimental artist to work, it doesn't suit a master entertainer like Spielberg. We don't know what he's doing or why, either, and before long the movie just dries up and blows away.

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originally posted: 12/30/06 12:05:21
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User Comments

4/06/11 karamashi Woefully uneven and trying to much at once that it doesn't really succeed fully. 3 stars
7/03/09 the dork knight Didn't McConaughey used to be a good actor?? 5 stars
8/15/07 Steve Newman Wayyyyyyyyy to long, too slow, lostits way. I bet the real story would make a GREAT story 3 stars
1/24/07 Sepi53 great historical film, good acting 5 stars
6/27/06 Criddic2 Beautifully acted, emotionally and intellectually stimulating 5 stars
10/23/05 Michael The Beginning Almost Kills The Movie ... Freedom Carries High Price ... Value It! 4 stars
9/02/05 ES Without a doubt the worst of Spielberg, boring, inaccurate and offensive 1 stars
3/18/05 hayle wells good deep 3 stars
2/06/05 patricia the story was good! it was inspiring for me. 5 stars
1/18/05 tina bedic great substance 5 stars
7/07/04 ariane sanchez it was a very touching film 4 stars
12/07/03 john interessting story but very uninspired film - 2 stars
10/10/03 Erik Van Sant I woke up with my head sewn to the carpet. Better than popping pills. 1 stars
9/24/03 Zhian Christoph it was very educational... fantastic! 5 stars
9/14/03 your massa this movie is for niggers and faggots - i am neither. 1 stars
6/22/03 KIII Very educational flick, powerful to the enc 5 stars
3/22/03 Jack Sommersby Stiff, ponderous, joyless historical drama. Only Hounsou stands out. 1 stars
10/08/02 Gina powerful..educational and touching in every way. MsAsh=ignorant 5 stars
10/07/02 bobbuttons pretty intense 4 stars
8/14/02 Bryan Brooks I never felt guilty rooting for Cinqué (a slave trader)! 3 stars
6/25/02 Charles Tatum Get out of the court room, and show us the slaves 3 stars
8/06/01 E-Funk Boring...Boring...Fucking BORING!!!!! 1 stars
4/24/01 Terrie Smith Goes on too long but Hopkins' final speech is a gem. Cinematography is a highlite. 4 stars
11/28/00 Cristopher Revilla good movie in spielberg's "serious" catalog, also sad too 5 stars
11/13/00 The EVIL Penguin nice performances can't save the cruel script 2 stars
6/16/00 Will I thought the performances were good. 4 stars
11/29/99 Crystal Fleming Awesome acting and sets 5 stars
10/27/99 Ralf Behet Though a flawed film, it would have deserved more recognition 4 stars
7/20/99 Matthew Bartley Dull but worthy,good acting but a little flat on dramatics 4 stars
7/17/99 soccer_mum *This* Ship is Oscar calibur! Best seen on Big Screen, but see it however you can!! 5 stars
7/07/99 Ben Leostein Rating: *** (out of ****) Category: "Good" 4 stars
4/13/99 Go Swans How could you reduce those amazing flashback scenes to a very average courtroom bore. 3 stars
3/18/99 Max Bernstein I was awestruck. This film is a masterpiece 5 stars
1/24/99 donkey_dew And that "lousy boat" movie won best picture instead? Wass up with that? paduy. 5 stars
11/02/98 MR HOLLYWOOD !! McConauhey is BORING,Hopkins cant stop mumbling BUT Dijmon Honsou is SUPERB. 4 stars
9/24/98 katherine i liked it. but it was a little scary and cruel, but istill liked how it taught us stuff. 4 stars
9/06/98 Admiral Mung Bean Soda (+/- 12db) Flat. Confused. Unfocused. And Morgan Freeman's character just kinda' stood around, a pity. 3 stars
8/24/98 The Capital City Goofball I'll forgive Speilberg, but not McConnaughey. He's such a bore. 3 stars
8/23/98 Mister Whoopee McConaughey is always awful. Boring as hell. Otherwise good movie. 3 stars
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  04-Dec-1997 (R)


  02-Feb-1998 (M)

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