At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Amistad “97”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Historical Drama/ Stars: Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Nigel Hawthorne, David Paymer, Pete Postlethwaite, Stellan Skarsgård, Razaaq Adoti, Abu Bakaar Fofanah, Anna Paquin, Tomas Milian, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Derrick Ashong, Geno Silva, John Ortiz, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ralph Brown, Darren E. Burrows, Allan Rich, Paul Guilfoyle, Peter Firth, Xander Berkeley, Jeremy Northam, Arliss Howard, Austin Pendleton/ Runtime: 154 minutes

To start this review off I would like to pose a pair of questions to you dear reader: what in your opinion is freedom and honestly just how in the world does an individual figure out just who among us as people truly is free and who truly is not? Indeed even though in the year 1839 these were a pair of questions where it was a lot harder to come to a conclusion that worked for the majority than nowadays, it is still worth bringing up because the mistakes of the past must always be analyzed in order to fix situations that are happening in the here and now. This, incidentally, is also at the basic level, just what master filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s riveting drama from 1997 “Amistad” deals with entirely. This is because though it’s various elements, Spielberg showcases a look at what happened when a group of Africans who, after being kidnapped from their home, were put on a ship known as “La Amistad” and sent off to ports unknown to be sold. However, in the midst of their voyage, the imprisoned men fought back and killed a chunk of the ship’s crew. Yet, due to the duplicitous nature of the men they let live, the ship found itself in the waters of the United States where the imprisoned men found themselves taken to trial for the crime of murder only to find themselves being aided by a legal team that included none other than Former President John Quincy Adams. As for how all this wound up then all I will say is you should give this film a view and see for yourself. Indeed Amistad may not be the defining film of helmer Spielberg’s iconic career (an honor usually reserved for Saving Private Ryan), and it’s not even to many the most crucial from a dramatic perspective recreation of a key time in history (an honor saved almost exclusively for Schindler’s List), but that should not take away from the impact this film will have on you, how it brings to life one of the most horrific institutions ever created by man, the majesty with which this narrative is conveyed, the elegance with which this slice of cinematic pie is conjured up, and the powerful volumes it has to say on being able to overcome any obstacle, even potentially the evil of slavery, when a group of people all work together for no less the noble cause of vehemently not permitting anything be it the law, a language barrier, or where a person comes from to impede on getting an individual the justice that they so rightfully deserve.

The plot is as follows: A long time ago in the year 1839, a slaver vessel by the name of Amistad saw an uprising occur when slaves that had freed themselves combated those who had taken them and the crew of the vessel and, in the bloody aftermath, only left a pair alive and gave them directions to return them to their homes in Africa. Instead of doing so however, the 2 survivors chose to steer the ship towards the US where she was swiftly taken into harbor and the slaves, having been labeled on the manifest as “cargo” were detained pending a court appearance to determine what was to be done with them. Upon arrival of the trial date however, the court would find itself turned upside down by at least several different parties being involved including D.A. William S. Holabird who intends to put a charge of murder on all the passengers, U.S. Secretary of State John Forsyth who has been approached, with an international treaty in mind, by the Queen of Spain to have them sent back to her, a pair of American men who call dibs for all intents and purposes on salvaging the vessel, a pair of Cubans who also claim the ship is theirs, and a pair of abolitionists by the names of Theodore Joadson and Lewis Tappan respectively who, with the aid of a little-league attorney by the name of Roger Sherman Baldwin as well as former President and current Congressman John Quincy Adams, are there to try and secure the freedom of the Amistad’s passengers with their main point of contact amongst the passengers being an individual by the name of Cinqué, a slave who, for all intents and purposes, is the de-facto leader of the passengers and who is thus delegated out to work alongside the abolitionists and their legal team in a courtroom battle which, by the time all is said and done, could have ramifications that go far beyond anything that any of the parties involved could have begun to predict….

Now this is a film which is constructed around a quite typical narrative structure for an entry in the courtroom drama subgenre of movie magic that is best showcased not just by an urge to determine a group’s guilt or lack thereof, but to determine just what is to happen to a group of people who have been taken prisoner for profit and are seen as nothing more than cargo under no less than maritime practices, an international treaty, and just in general in the world around them. Yet this film thankfully is one which does not wish to be strong due to sentimentality and is one that builds its narrative in one part courtesy of an outright hunt for justice as shown through the point of view of a group of individuals who have been drawn to each other by a mutual desire. Not for the limelight in this public debacle nor to rub shoulders with “elite” people, but rather to engage in combat for something they hold dear even if that something is a concept that laws and the majority point of view take issue with. On the other side of the coin, we see that the narrative manages to gain further gravitas not just through an examination of what is just and unjust, but through the potential and quite genuine fallout of the court’s verdict as it analyzes everything from fractured international alliances to the potential threat of a civil war brewing in the United States itself. Indeed this slice of cinematic pie’s drive to give us a quite intricate analysis of the issues that extend past the simple moral ponderings that push the narrative forward is both essential and respectable, and the attention that is given to it is one that aids in the perspective being opened even further and to help hammer in the point that even where no ambiguity is to be found, there is still a complicated mist of things to be taken into consideration going on which, although they do not nullify the morality of the situation, do for good or ill take this situation to a kind of purgatory that is built from no less an ingredient than the folly of man.

Thankfully, neither the potency of the narrative nor the high dramatics it has assigned itself managed to water down the impact of the narrative from a pathos perspective. Indeed, in typical fashion for the master filmmaker, Spielberg manages to utilize just the right touch between the dark reality of the case and an overload of sentimentality. Indeed even though he doesn’t omit the second one completely, he does permit it to become conjured up as an offspring of the narrative and not the other way around. Indeed Spielberg manages to put just the right frame on this picture as it permits the story to set the standards for any kind of pathos driven response by placing an every so often heartfelt or comic moment into place. Not to lessen things emotionally mind you, but instead to ease up for just a little bit and give you, the movie goer a chance to be reminded that even in dark moments like this and where a lot is on the line, life isn’t always showcased by difficulty on a physical or pathos level. As such, the movie always finds itself in near-spot on equilibrium and even manages to stay focused on the main narrative ingredients whilst never going astray thus keeping the film an immersive and quite meaningful account rather than one that quickly stales and becomes more about facts and figures than actual people like you or I.

To that end, it should be noted that this is a film which benefits quite tremendously from the distinct vision and capable skill which exists in Mr. Spielberg’s repertoire. Indeed this master helmer manages to do a wonderful job of giving the narrative in equal parts scope and yet also significance as well. At the same time though, it should be noted that the film does every so often throw us a distinct touch of dramatics about it though this can be attributed to the fact that the film is just as much about entertaining you the movie goer as it also is about educating you about a little known episode in the vast TV series that is American History. Ultimately, I am happy to say that Spielberg, unsurprisingly, manages to showcase that he is a champion of being able to both entertain and enrich and develop this film’s riveting narrative in equal measure. Not only that, but Spielberg’s dependably masterful touch at the helm is thankfully equaled in effort by a truly top-notch group of thespians that all manage to immerse themselves in their respective roles whilst also showcasing the talent for, much like the movie, keep up a vibe of gravitas, but also manage to showcase tiny and not often moments to engage in very light comedy as a balance to the dark reality that the film is showcasing for all of us.

All in all whilst there are those, both casual movie goer and reviewer in equal measure, who might make the decision to question just how accurate from a historical perspective the movie Amistad may or may not be, it is my distinct opinion that, when looked at solely as a film, it should be for all intents and purposes above that distinct course of action. The reason I say this is because whilst this film from 1997 and helmed by masterclass filmmaker Steven Spielberg does choose to go after a particularly heavy subject matter though what we are able to see is the typical manner for an entry in the subgenre of movie magic known as the Courtroom Drama, it still nevertheless does this whilst also paying unique regard towards detail for both how the movie is flowing and of the importance of the story that the film is trying to tell while all the while being able to consistently stay engaging and entertaining despite the dour subject matter being presented. Indeed even though Amistad is most definitely not the finest film that Spielberg has ever sought fit to grace movie goers with, a title that even for an avid reviewer like me is still a mystery in regards to which film should bear it, this is nevertheless a truly vivid and wonderful film through every twist and turn of the narrative to say nothing of the fact that it is masterfully constructed and performed by a remarkable cast of thespians thus making Amistad a true masterclass of both cinema on a technical level and how best to compose a story in order to make it the most engaging for an audience as it possibly can be. On a scale of 1-5 I give Amistad “97” a solid 4 out of 5.