When Steven Spielberg was first approached to direct “Amistad,” he passed because he felt that the story was larger than a theatrical film could hold. He should have trusted his first instincts. “Amistad,” even at two-and-a-half hours, seems thin. Despite having been directed by the master of manipulation himself, “Amistad” is remotely distant and devoid of emotion.
This story of African slaves who break free from their chains and kill the crew of the Spanish slave ship they’re on, only to wind up in a New England court on trial for their lives and freedom, should come with lots of emotional baggage. Instead, writer David Franzoni has packed light. “Amistad” begins with a brilliantly shot prologue that shows how Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) and his fellow Africans broke free from their captors in 1839, and took over the slave trade ship Amistad. When the ship is stormed by stormed and the rebels captured, they are sent to a New England jail where they await trial. It doesn’t take long before the men become pawns in a legal system that uses them to make points for both sides. The defense, represented by abolitionists, want the men released because they were illegally obtained. The government is afraid to free them because the ramifications could ignite a Civil War. All of the ingredients of good drama, but for some reason, none of it grabbed me. I remember watching “Roots” on television, and being honestly moved. Nothing in “Amistad” reaches that level. Spielberg, normally a master of manipulating emotions, fails miserably here. I felt cheated by his need to underline seemingly important scenes with heavy violins and a choir. The only thing missing is a neon sign telling us how affecting these scenes are supposed to be. Don’t blame the cast. They are super, even if the film isn’t. Sir Anthony Hopkins delivers a towering performance as aging ex-president John Quincy Adams, whose desperation to rise above his father’s shadow brings him into the good fight. Even when he’s forced to deliver Franzoni’s soapbox dialogue, he still rises above the material. Hounsou stands-out as the former rice farmer Cinque, kidnaped from his homeland and forced into slavery. Hounsou commands the screen with a fiery determination that ignites the screen. Quite a compliment for a script that does little to distinguish between its characters. Matthew McConaughey has a nice turn as the business lawyer who chooses to defend the slaves as merchandise rather than people, while Morgan Freeman shines as a former slave turned businessman. “Amistad” is a fine looking film, filled with exquisite period detail and outstanding technical credits. When it’s not used as a reminder, John Williams’ musical score is sweeping. “Amistad” isn’t so much of a misstep for Spielberg after “Schindler’s List” as it is a disappointment. He doesn’t give himself the time needed to make the story whole. Major events are glossed over, and character development suffers. Obviously Spielberg felt strong enough about the material to bring it to the screen. Too bad he couldn’t have done it as a television mini-series where he would have had the time to do it right.
VISION: [ X ] 20/20 [ ] Good [ ] Cataracts [ ] Blind
If there is one thing to be said about Dreamworks Home Video DVD’s is their attention to detail. The 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is excellent, featuring outstanding, true life colors with strong saturation. The blacks are industrial strength, while the whites and shadows are clean. I didn’t notice any compression artifacts, and a pristine negative allows for an equally sharp print. Field of depth is strong, while attention to details are extraordinary. You can actually see the wood grain on the rails of the ship. Delivered on an RSDL disc for uninterrupted viewing, the overall image is one of perfection. The colors are especially vibrant, while the flesh tones are so real you’d swear you could reach out and touch them.
HEARING: [ X ] Excellent [ ] Minor Hearing Loss [ ] Needs Hearing Aid [ ] Deaf
Exciting 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track throws you right in the middle of the action. The stereo split (both l-r, and front to back) is so exact that you’ll feel seasick during the first fifteen minutes of the film. Ambient noise is especially exciting, creating a virtual world in your home theater. The basses are strong and powerful, while the middle and high ends are clean and crisp. John Williams’ dramatic score pours out of the speakers with confidence, while the dialogue mix is accurate. The left to right stereo split is definitive, as is the front-to-rear spatial separation.
ORAL: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Good [ ] Poor
Closed captions for the hard of hearing in English.
COORDINATION: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Good [ ] Clumsy [ ] Weak
Handsome main and scene access menus that play off the theme of the film. There’s also a behind-the- scenes featurette that allows you to check out of the process director Steven Spielberg went through to get “Amistad” to the big screen. It’s always fun to watch actors behind-the-scenes, especially in a costume drama. The DVD also features cast and crew biographies, plus the original theatrical trailer.
PROGNOSIS: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Fit [ ] Will Live [ ] Resuscitate [ ] Terminal
I may not have been thrilled with the film itself, but the DVD presentation is better than anything my local theater could have offered. On that recommendation alone, by all means add this DVD to your collection if you liked the film more than me.
VITALS: $29.99/Rated R/155 Minutes/Color/24 Chapter Stops/Keepcase/#84162
ATTENDING RESIDENT: John Larsen
BIRTH DATE: 1997
HMO: Dreamworks Home Video