HTS Moderator , Reviewer
HTS Overall Score:83
It’s been a pleasure to review not one, but two Steven Spielberg classics in the last week. With “The Terminal” we had a nice whimsical dramedy. Here we have Spielberg pulling another one of his incredibly well done historical epics out of the bag. When we think of the cream of the crop the first words that come to mind are “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List”, ones that have stood the test of time and everyone who’s ever watched a movie knows about. “Amistad” isn't as quick to the tongue, and doesn't have that perfect polish that the above mentioned movies have, but it hovers just underneath, an incredible film that really is only kept from perfection by a few flaws here and there that lose the pace. I remember being in high school and being introduced to Steven Spielberg through this movie. I also remember the controversy that went on about the film. So much of the marketing had pushed that “Amistad” was 100% true, and the events were mirrored in history, when in fact most of it is fabricated to create an emotional drama. Had the marketing team tried less to convince people that it was true and more on conveying the MEANING of the movie, they might have avoided that issue entirely and elevated the film in the public eye.
“La Amistad” was a slave ship, carrying a group of African prisoners from their homeland to the Spanish Empire. Falling under attack from the prisoners, the Spanish crew was obliterated and the remaining two survivors promised to return the slaves home. Intercepted by a U.S. military vessel, “La Amistad” was captured and the slaves and survivors sent to the United States to be sorted out. President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) had just assumed the presidency and the entire bureaucracy was in a nervous tizzy, afraid that setting the slaves go would incite a civil war, but they couldn't just wipe them under the table either. As such we have the beginnings of a giant court procedural wherein the origination and subsequent outcome of the slaves were to be decided. On one hand we have the national government, who is VERY eager to claim that the slaves are property of Queen Isabella (played by a VERY young Anna Paquin), while the abolitionists are doing their best to make sure that these men are shown for who are they are. Men, not pieces of property. The two leading abolitionists, Mr. Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), and Mr. Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard) agree to have a young property lawyer by the name of Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) represent the African slaves on the grounds of finding a loophole in the property laws. Now Mr. Baldwin has no caring for the slaves themselves. To him it’s just another case, another paycheck and a high profile one at that. As soon as he can swing a loophole he’s got his ticket made to bigger and better things. The only problem is, when you get close to someone, it’s very hard to see them as JUST a piece of property. As he converses with their spokesman Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), Baldwin realizes that he can’t win this case on loopholes alone. He has to create a sympathetic bond between the Afriacans and the jury, and does he ever. Bringing down the house in one fell blow he has them off the hook and out of the frying pan.
Now the only problem is, Van Buren is being pressured not to let them go in fear of starting a Civil War between the southern slave holding states and the north. So in a moment that would define his role in this movie, he replaces the judge with a young, up and comer, someone who has Catholic sensibilities (much like the Catholic nation of Spain) and who will be a bit more “malleable”, to their ends. Now it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire, for now Baldwin and Cinque not only have to convince a new judge, but convince someone who was handpicked to bury them. Baldwin is up against a wall and does the unbelievable, he convinces this judge to find in favor of the slaves. Now the government plays one final hand here. They appeal to the Supreme Court, a court that has 7 of the 9 justice’s being card carrying slave holders. With so much on the line, they are forced to call in one of the greatest lawyers of that time, one John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) to plead their case.
The film has a few flaws that, I think, pull it down from a masterpiece to just a great movie. Spielberg’s sentimentality flows throughout the veins of the movie, giving it a pulse of its own, but there are a few moments in the court rooms where I felt the pacing was a bit off. The famous “Give us, us FREE!” line that was uttered with the second judge is a powerful statement, but now that I’m older feels a bit trite and trumped up with fanfare type music to try and elicit an emotional response, instead of letting the story do that for us. I also wish that maybe 15 minutes of the film had been trimmed for time as well. The final scenes with Quincy Adams felt a bit redundant after the elation of the second judge giving his verdict. We were on an emotional high and the last 30 minutes just seems to coast along for a bit instead of surging up to the end.
With that being said I still believe it is one EXCELLENT film. Djimon Hounsou got his big time start with this movie and has made quite the career of himself, not to mention Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays the African translator here. People always like to say that Matthew McConaughey always played pretty boy roles until recently, where he’s branched out, but here, as a young man is one of his finest roles as the attorney with the heart of gold. Transformed from a selfish…well.. Lawyer. To a man struggling to do what’s right, whether that means the end of his career or not. I still to this day sob like a child when watching the flashback scenes to the original slave ship, “The Tecora”, as we see what Cinque and his brethren went through on the voyage over. It’s brutal, disturbing and if you cannot cringe when watching, I would be honestly surprised. The violence and degradation during those scenes set the point so very clearly on WHY we loathe the idea of slavery. It’s not just about making someone else work for you, or that you think you’re better than them. It’s the taking of a person’s rights, their dignity, even a piece of their humanity. Turning them into a shell of their former self, all so that we could become a little richer, or labor under the belief that they were sub human. Everyone can feel that rise of elation when the judge passes his final ruling and feel that relief and absolution washing over the men. I personally always get a smirk on my face as we watch the dispassionate British commander dictating a rather sarcastic letter back to the U.S. in regards to the slave trading mecca off of Sierra Leone and it's status after a cannon bombardment.
Rated R for some scenes of strong brutal violence and some related nudity
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=18018[/img]What always makes me excited to watch a new Steven Spielberg Blu-ray is the simple fact that Spielberg likes to get personally involved with the transfer. As such you’re almost always guaranteed to have a fantastic transfer, and here is no different. “Amistad” is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with an AVC encode that has a VERY healthy bitrate that pushes into the low 40 mpbs at times. There is a nice covering of that wonderful film grain that is second nature to the director and it shows an incredible amount of detail. There is a bit of a softness that was done due to the filming style, but it’s very slight and only noticeable if you really look for it. The faces and clothing show an amazing upgrade from the already decent DVD of 10 years past, showing individual textures and threads on old fashioned jackets and the age lines on some of the Supreme Court Justice’s faces. The open ocean looks resplendent with rich blues and pale greens and the greenhouse of John Quincy Adams is alive with vibrant colors. The rest of the color palette tends to be a bit dark and earthy, as a lot of it is in the inside of a court room or in the bowels of a slave ship. With that in mind we have some exceptional black levels. The opening scene where we’re focusing on Cinque’s face in nearly absolute darkness is amazing. You can see every bead of sweat and every wrinkle in his brow, all in the darkest of black scenes.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=18026[/img]The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track doesn’t disappoint in any way, shape or form either. Rich and full of life we really don’t expect much from a dialogue driven movie, but “Amistad” tends to surprise us rather often. The dialogue is clean and clear from any anomalies while giving us a robust surround experience when we’re out in the high seas, or when in the middle of a bustling city. Even the court room shows some incredible range and immersiveness when you can hear the creaking of a chair to the right and the scraping of a foot on the floor to the left. There is even some very impressive LFE to boot, the cannon shots and the roar of the ocean create an impressive swell of power and there is a nice weight that is added to every day goings on like the “thud” of a gavel reverberating throughout the courtroom. Very well done, and I have to give Paramount and Spielberg props for giving us an excellent audio track.
• The Making of "Amistad"
• Theatrical Trailers
“Amistad” was released on DVD over 10 years ago today and it’s a revelation to see the quality difference between that old DVD release and the newly restored Blu-ray. I love watching this film, even though it can be difficult to watch very often, due to the subject matter. But to be frank, it’s another one that I think should be required viewing by many and I greatly appreciate Paramount bringing this one out of the vault. With the stunning audio and video it’s a must add to anyone’s Spielberg collection, even with the very disappointing array of extras.
Starring: Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: David Franzoni
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 AVC
Audio: English: DTS-HD MA 5.1, French DD 5.1, Spanish, Portuguese DD 2.0
Runtime: 155 minutes
Blu-ray Release Date: May 6th 2014
Buy Amistad Blu-ray on Amazon
Recommendation: Must Watch
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