Sunday, December 4, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.12: Steven Spielberg's Amistad

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. Next up: his 1997 film Amistad.

Grade: 50 (C+)

After the commercial and artistic triumph of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg understandably took some time off from directing. Creating his 1993 Oscar-winner was an exhausting experience, and Spielberg wanted to spend time with his family. He did not return to filmmaking until 1997 with the successful but disappointing Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World. That same year, Spielberg picked a true artistic follow-up to Schindler’s List with Amistad, another story of triumph in the face of terror and oppression. But if Amistad is not spoken of with the same reverence as Schindler’s List, it is with good reason.

1841: “Cinque” (Djimon Hounsou), as he is named by slave traders, is a warrior of the Mende tribe of Sierra Leone. He and many others have been taken from their home and put on La Amistad trade ship headed for Spain. Cinque and his countrymen escape their shackles, revolt, and kill their captors. They at an American port, where they are put on trial for murder. Their hope lies in four men: opportunistic lawyer Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard), and former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), who takes an interest in their case.

No discussion of Amistad can start without consideration of the slave ship sequences, which are appropriately brutal. The film opens with a stunning 20-minutes sequence in which Cinque and company escape. Djimon Hounsou is terrific as a man desperate to stay alive. The camera focuses on his eyes, his mouth, his hands. He breathes heavily. He is frightened, but he must act. He scratches at the wood surrounding a nail. He pulls the nail out, with great difficulty (his fingers bleed). He undoes his shackles and frees his fellow captives. The men then storm the deck, where they violently dispatch the Spaniards. Their fury is unmistakable. A storm rages over the sea. Over the next few days, the men try to find out where they are and force the two remaining sailors to take them home. But they have a long journey yet. Spielberg wisely eschews subtitles and throws the audience into the situation with clear action and purpose. If only the rest of the film followed suit.

The film shows Spielberg returning to portrayals of the dark side of technology, of how selfishness blinds people, and to a message of tolerance. Men and women are humiliated or killed with the new technological advances of the Western world. Fellow Africans sell others for guns and other modern weapons; it will give them power over neighboring tribes. The Spaniards and other Americans only think of the Africans as property. The court case considers several perspectives: that of Queen Isabella of Spain (Anna Paquin), of the surviving Spaniards, of the soldiers who arrested the men, and of the anti-abolitionist and abolitionist perspectives. President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) is shown to only consider how the case might effect his re-election. The Mende men aren’t given the same consideration. Even Baldwin considers this case a personal booster at first, as he has a weak record in the courts as a property lawyer. Only when he comes together with the Mende men to solve the problem are his eyes opened.

These are all terrific Spielberg themes, but Amistad is curiously static. When the film focuses on Cinque, the one character who takes real action, it soars. But the courtroom scenes are too talky and too typical to stand out; their period setting is the only difference from any other legal drama. Spielberg’s finest films often have terrific dialogue driven scenes, but they always further the action of the story. Amistad features too many scenes of lawyers throwing talking points at each other. It’s clear who we should side with, but it isn’t that interesting to watch. The scenes in which Baldwin and others try to interact with the Africans are better, as are most sequences that center on Cinque. When he has to describe his journey on the slave ship the Tecora, the film becomes an action-oriented dramatic work again, with horrifying depictions of abuse and desperation. When Cinque memorably disrupts a court session with the exclamation “Give us free!”, his perspective and pain are clear. Whenever the film centers on Baldwin or the others, it’s dead in the water.

Part of this stems from the film not knowing who the protagonist is. It should be Cinque’s story, not the others. McConaughey is fine as Baldwin, and it’s refreshing to remember a time when he pursued more challenging parts, but the role is too similar to his lawyer role in A Time to Kill, and the familiarity makes his story rather dull. Worse, Freeman and Skarsgard’s roles are minimized after the first hour of the film. Putting two actors as gifted as these and giving them little to do other than look solemn is a crying shame.

The film runs out of steam at the grand finale, where Hopkins’ John Quincy Adams effectively takes the case from Baldwin in order to more effectively argue the Mende case. Hopkins is best when he has something to restrain his hammier instincts (think The Silence of the Lambs, The Elephant Man). Given free reign, he tears into every overwritten monologue with an actor’s worst tendencies.  His inexplicably Oscar-nominated turn here is distractingly mannered, and it further takes away from the central story (why not just nominate Hounsou?). His agonizingly long speech highlights what’s wrong with the film: it thinks if it talks long enough, it’ll eventually say something important.

Amistad’s final moments are far too talky, and the film sags under the weight of earnest rhetoric and simplistic depictions of history. Spielberg might have been inspired by old courtroom dramas like Inherit the Wind or period dramas like Billy Budd, but the film feels too familiar and too generic aside from the ship sequences. It ends on far too happy a note as the case rules in favor of the Mende men, the slave traders are arrested, and slavery is dealt a powerful blow. The twenty-five remaining years of American slavery, century of administrated discrimination, and lingering racial tension is passed over. As Cinque and sails home, a post-script says that he found Sierra Leone amidst civil war, and that his family was missing, presumably from slave trade. It’s a moment of ambiguity and sadness that comes far too late.

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