Doing Justice Spielberg's 'Amistad' is a powerful tale of slavery and freedom. So we can forgive the director for taking a few liberties

December 12, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

There's a moment in Steven Spielberg's "Amistad" that captures what's so right and so wrong about the movie.

The film's main protagonists, John Quincy Adams and Cinque, the African leader of a slave-ship uprising, are locked in intimate conversation. As Cinque tells the former president about how he empowers himself by summoning his ancestors, the personal meaning for Adams is painfully etched on his face. Words aren't necessary.

It's a great scene and could easily have been left at that. But Spielberg insists on taking the two men to Adams' greenhouse, where the statesman shows his visitor his prize African violet. Does it come as any surprise that the music swells just about now?

It's classic Spielberg, who brings his worst and his best to bear on "Amistad," his fictionalized account of the Amistad incident. Shot through with Spielbergian sentimental touches and lacking the central human element that made "Schindler's List" such a fascinating personal as well as historical drama, "Amistad" nonetheless manages to make its enormous impact simply by bringing a fabulous story to light.

"Amistad" also reveals the democratic process at its most righteously triumphant, which makes it ideal fodder for a director whose compulsion to wring redemption out of hopeless stories neatly dovetails with the most idealistic strains of the American character.

"Amistad" begins with brutal force as a desperate man, shown in harrowing flashes of lightning, tries to break free from his shackles. The man is Sengbe Pieh, who had been captured from his West African village by Spanish slavers and transported to Cuba.

While en route from Havana to another port on a ship called La Amistad, Sengbe -- called Cinque by his kidnappers -- frees himself and leads 52 fellow Africans in an uprising that kills all but two crew members. The Africans order the crewmen to take them back to Africa, but the sailors instead steer the boat northward.

The Amistad is discovered by a U.S. Naval ship, and the Africans are imprisoned in Connecticut and charged with murder. Their case winds up in the Supreme Court, where Adams argues on their behalf.

Most of "Amistad" has to do with the Africans' imprisonment and protracted legal fights. Taken up by abolitionist Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard) and Theodore Joadson (a fictional character played by Morgan Freeman), the Africans' case is eventually taken on by real-estate lawyer Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), who perceives the case as a classic property-rights issue.

Complicating Baldwin's case is the immature Queen Isabella of Spain (Anna Paquin), who blithely takes time away from her dolls to order the Africans' extradition. President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) is all too happy to play along: He's up for re-election and needs votes from the South, for whom the Amistad case is a crucial bellwether of secession.

As if the constitutional and international legal issues weren't thorny enough, the Africans' attorneys must find a way to communicate with their clients, who speak a polyglot jumble of African dialects. The metaphorical parallels aren't lost on Spielberg, who alludes to the contemporary resonance of the Amistad tale early and often.

The most lively passages of "Amistad" come at the hands of John Quincy Adams, crankily personified by Anthony Hopkins with beetling brow and a peppery dash of Lionel Barrymore. A reluctant participant in the historic debate, Adams provides the thematic center of "Amistad": "Whoever tells the best story wins." He's talking about courtroom strategies, but he might as well be talking about the ownership of history, the vagaries of politics and, not incidentally, moviemaking itself.

Does Spielberg win? Yes, with a few penalties.

He has elicited a terrific performance from Hopkins, who makes the most of his limited time on screen. And newcomer Djimon Hounsou is a commanding, charismatic presence as the

reluctant leader Cinque. In fact, "Amistad" succeeds best when it focuses on these two characters: Adams is a contradictory bundle of surprises, and Cinque, like all of Spielberg's most memorable heroes, just wants to go home.

Their one (completely fictional) scene together is the most potent and personal moment in a film that prefers to concentrate on events rather than the people behind them. Visually and philosophically, "Amistad" remains suspended in the middle distance, the characters never coming fully alive the way Oskar Schindler or even E.T. did.

As Baldwin, McConaughey wrestles with the New England accent but his Texas twang wins, and he can be distractingly anachronistic; it's improbable that a 19th-century lawyer would punch the air and yell "Yes!" when he won.

Distressingly, Morgan Freeman makes no impression at all as Joadson, who is inserted into the narrative with an awkward earnestness that illustrates how cinema-as-pedagogy can fall on the sword of its own good intentions.

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