Based on a true story, the movie chronicles the incredible journey of a group of enslaved Africans who overtake their captor's ship and attempt to return to their beloved homeland. When the ship, La Amistad, is seized, these captives are brought to the United States where they are charged with murder and await their fate in prison. An enthralling battle ensues that captures the attention of the entire nation, confronting the very foundation of the American justice system. But for the men and women on trial, it is simply a fight for the basic right of all mankind...freedom.
Cold, metal shackles. They clank and drag and confine their victims, weighing down upon their very sense of hope and dignity -- and their overwhelming presence can be felt throughout almost every frame of Steven Spielberg's 'Amistad,' helping to draw the audience into the characters' plight, becoming a constant, visceral reminder of the bondage they are forced to endure. From shot to shot, we see the enslaved Africans suffer unspeakable brutality and unjust horrors, both physical and political, and all the while the director continues to emphasize those horrible chains, tightly ensnaring his viewers into the same unavoidable reality of Cinque and his friends, forcing us to go on their journey with them -- a journey brought to life through powerful performances, gripping filmmaking, and the unrelenting clatter of rusting metal.
Based on a true story, the film focuses on a group of captured Africans led by the brave and determined Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), who all pull off a mutiny on a Spanish slave-ship in 1839. When they are eventually taken by the American Navy and brought to Washington, D.C., the alleged slaves are put on trial. With the help of a young lawyer (Matthew McConaughey), an abolitionist (Morgan Freeman), and even an elderly John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), the Africans must prove that they were born free men in their native land. But scheming politics and tensions from the South conspire to thwart the case, placing the Africans' freedom in peril.
The majority of the narrative takes on the form of a courtroom drama, following McConaughey's Roger Baldwin as he tries to build a case for Cinque and his companions. This is made all the more difficult due to the extreme language barrier between the two, and this leads to some clever drama that plays up the importance of communication. Eventually, however, a translator (played by Academy Award nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in his first big screen role) is discovered and this breakthrough shifts the entire dynamic of the runtime. Now able to tell the court his story in his own words, Cinque's plight can finally be revealed, but unfortunately it turns out that the truth might not be enough to win this case.
Serving as a thematic precursor of sorts to 2012's 'Lincoln,' Spielberg tackles many similar concepts here dealing with political maneuvering and human rights. Through the Amistad case, the story exposes the frustrating limitations of our legal system as every triumphant success is met by an equally painful setback. This maddening back and forth becomes the source of most of the film's drama, subjugating the African's freedom to the whims of several competing manipulators who wish to use the case as a means to further their own agendas.
Throughout it all, Spielberg maintains an engaging pace which, despite the film's 155 min runtime, manages to avoid any major lulls. Likewise, the true emphasis always remains on the characters themselves, creating an affecting, deeply human story that informs all of the legal conflicts. To this end, McConaughey proves to be quite good in his role, offering an affecting but predictable arc for his character. Initially, the lawyer appears to have little emotional connection to the Africans, but as he becomes more invested in the case, a deep bond forms between him and Cinque. Morgan Freeman is also very effective as the former slave turned abolitionist who aids the Africans in their case, and Anthony Hopkins turns in a scene-stealing performance as a twilight-era John Quincy Adams. Of course, while the entire ensemble is commendable, the real star of the movie is Djimon Hounsou. In his first major role, the actor is nothing short of revelatory, offering a gut-wrenching, primal display of determination, bravery, and suffering.
When we finally bear witness to all of the events which led to the Africans' mutiny, Spielberg opts to present the entire, harrowing ordeal in an extended flashback. Though he is known for his sometimes saccharine style, here the director does not hold back, relaying the disturbing events in gruesome detail, turning the courtroom drama into an unflinching horror film. Also of note is the movie's opening scene, a strikingly stylized account of the mutiny itself. Cast in billowing rain and illuminated only by flashing lightning, the bloody sequence is chaotic and marked by uncomfortable close-ups and indistinct carnage -- creating a startling introduction that remains some of Spielberg's most visually arresting work. And as graphic as all of this violent imagery can be, the content is never gratuitous. Instead it's a necessary part of understanding the characters' story, fueling the quest for justice that rests at the heart of the narrative.
Outside of these more visceral sequences, Spielberg employs a more refined visual style that offers a classically handsome aesthetic to go along with all of the legal plotting. To this end, the movie always maintains an assured sense of composition, movement, and editing, revealing a director who knows exactly what he wants. With that said, Spielberg's approach to the material isn't always perfect, and many of the director's trademark sentimental tendencies do occasionally overplay the drama. On that note, there's a certain perfectly mannered quality to the entire production, with every emotional outburst and revelation so meticulously calculated that it sometimes becomes a tad artificial. Some heart to heart conversations also border on the idealistic and mawkish, with clear attempts to tug at the audience through frequent inspiring pep talks, longing glances, misty-eyed platitudes, and soaring music cues in ways that are occasionally unearned. Thankfully, however, most of the film's major beats end up ringing true, and though the tone can skirt toward the histrionic, the movie's examination of freedom, friendship, and humanity is undeniably powerful.
'Amistad' is a genuinely affecting true story about hard-earned liberty and inhumane horrors. Though it might not be among Spielberg's very best work, it's still a strong entry in his celebrated filmography. Marked by many of the stylistic strengths and flaws that permeate all of the director's movies, the film is both raw and manipulative, offering an engaging courtroom drama and an unflinching look at unspeakable brutality that only occasionally veers into simplistic sentiment. Skillfully crafted and impeccably performed, the movie serves as a testament to mankind's uncrushable spirit and its boundless ability to break free from even the heaviest of shackles.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Paramount brings 'Amistad' to Blu-ray on a single BD-50 disc that comes housed in a keepcase. After some logos, the screen transitions to a standard menu.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Authentically textured and pristine, this is a very strong, filmic transfer.
The source print is essentially problem free with no signs of age or wear. A light to moderate layer of natural grain is visible throughout, and the image is free from any signs of digital processing or troublesome artifacts. Though the film's style does have a comparatively soft quality in several shots (helping to evoke the bygone era), detail remains very impressive, showing off the elaborate period appropriate costumes and sets. Close-ups are especially striking, particularly the opening shots of Cinque's determined face breaking free. One can make out every tiny bead of sweat on his brow, making his fortitude and distress that much more palpable. The color palette is relatively varied throughout, alternating between cooler and warmer tones depending on the scene. A series of brightly lit, outdoor flashbacks offer the most pop, juxtaposing their dire content against vivid hues. Contrast is nicely balanced throughout, and black levels are consistent with good shadow delineation.
With pleasing clarity and filmic texture, 'Amistad' comes to Blu-ray with a very respectful and impressive transfer, free from any digital artifacts or unnecessary processing.
The film is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix, a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track, and a Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 track, along with English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English SDH subtitles. With enveloping atmosphere and a stirring John Williams score, the audio creates a natural and engaging experience.
Speech remains clear and full-bodied throughout with no balance issues or technical quirks. The soundstage itself is quite engrossing and impressive during the film's key setpieces, creating a living and spacious sense of place. The movie's harrowing opening mutiny scene is particularly memorable, layering the room with creaking wood, heavy breaths, primal screams, distant thunder, and billowing rain. Likewise, even beyond more aggressive sequences like this, the track remains effective, with thoughtful sound design that always places an unsettling emphasis on the Africans' heavy, clanking chains. John Williams' soaring music also comes through with strong fidelity and wide range. With that said, bass activity is notably muted, even during the movie's more intense scenes.
Immersive and artfully designed, the mix complements Spielberg's visual storytelling well, enhancing the characters' triumphs and tragedies through effects and music while transporting the audience into their shoes.
Steven Spielberg's 'Amistad' offers a powerful examination of freedom and injustice. Though the drama can be a little too calculated and sentimental, the film remains raw and unflinching in its depiction of Cinque's struggles. The video transfer is very impressive, giving viewers an authentic image free from any troublesome processing. Likewise, the audio mix is strong as well, providing an immersive and absorbing experience. We only get one supplement, but the included making of doc is certainly worthwhile. This isn't among Spielberg's very best work, but the movie is a gripping piece of filmmaking that is both disturbing and inspiring. Recommended.