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In the summer of 1839 on a stormy night off the coast of Cuba, 53 Africans held captive in the cramped cargo holds of the Spanish slave ship LA Amistad break free. Led by Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), they take control of the ship, relying on the two surviving members of the crew to guide them back to Africa. But they are tricked. After two months on the ragged course up the Eastern seabord, the Amistad is captured by an American naval ship off the coast of Long Island and the Africans are charged with murder. In the beginning, the Africans are championed by abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and businessman Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård), plus a young real estate lawyer, Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey). However, as the case becomes a symbol of a nation divided, two great Americans lock horns in the debate: pro-slavery President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), seeking re-election, is willing to sacrifice the Africans to appease the South, along with the 11 year old Queen Isabella of Spain (Anna Paquin). Van Buren is challenged by former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), who comes out of retirement to fight the Africans’ cause in the US Supreme Court. It is a case that challenges the very foundation of the legal system, but for the Africans on trial, this is a fight for the basic right of all people – freedom.

"The subject is personal freedom, the story is historically significant, and the medium is Hollywood cinema. These three elements are not always happy bedfellows, the needs of the latter often burdening the needs of the former. While agreeing with most of what my colleagues on this page have to say positively about Amistad (but siding with those who are critical of McConaughey as the lawyer) I have some reservations. The ‘look and feel’ of the film is faultless, so is the music; the responsibility for the bigger emotional punches lie with two men who superbly deliver it in spades – Hopkins and Hounsou. My first reservations concern the casting of not only McConaughey, but Paquin, the game little girl from The Piano, where her accent was a seamless part of her character. Here, she struggles with an accent that borders on a form of brogue while trying to get the flavour of a Spanish onion into it. Indeed, it can be argued her presence in the film is superfluous and distracting. More serious, however, is a dramatic lapse or two: for one, the powerful courtroom scene (of which there are several) when Cinque utters his first words in English, begging for freedom. This should have shattered us all, but it was neither set up adequately, nor brought to a satisfactory conclusion. The juxtapositioning of scenes in a film is often the key to their effectiveness; I was disappointed in Spielberg’s decisions in this case. A similar problem exists at the end of the film, where sentimentality and smalch overtake the filmmakers, diminishing the power of their story. But Amistad is deserving of a wide audience and I’d like to finish on a positive note: Spielberg errs on the side of right and moral decency, and as a cinematic essay on a subject of universal validity plus eternal currency, it deserves – and justifies – genuine praise both as entertainment and as history lesson."
Andrew L. Urban

"Steven Spielberg brings the story of Amistad to the screen with unbridled passion and commitment, with powerful images and extraordinary performances, notably from Anthony Hopkins and newcomer, Djimon Hounsou. Epic in both length and significance, Amistad is a symbol perhaps of Spielberg’s conscience, as was Schindler’s List. Anthony Hopkins is amazing as the former President, whose intelligence and determination champions the Supreme Court. Deserving of yet another Academy Award for this outing, Hopkins gives a complete performance, convincing at every turn, strong and learned from age and experience, with the patience and understanding that comes with it. His scenes with Hounsou, despite the language barrier, are ripe with communication, and it is at those moments when true movie magic occurs. Hounsou, imposing in stature, is a revelation, with an explosive screen presence. His amazing body and features (as stunningly displayed in Herb Ritt’s photographs of him), make him a model leader, and this role offers him a strong platform. Morgan Freeman, Stellan Skarsgård and Pete Postlethwaite offer strong support, but Matthew McConaughey appears miscast in a role which deserves and requires an actor that can deliver more depth. Production design, cinematography, editing and sound are tops, while the master, John Williams, provides a glorious, rousing score that captures the spirit of freedom, as it envelops us in the mastery and magic of the screen."
Louise Keller

"There are two sides to director Steven Spielberg: there’s the crassly commercial side, as evidenced in the two artless but effective Jurassic Park pictures; then there’s the passionate film maker, the more personal Spielberg who finally emerged in his extraordinary Schindler’s List. Amistad falls somewhere between the two. For the most part, this is an impressive work, a gloriously looking intimate epic that is multi-faceted in its themes. At just over 2 ½ hours, Spielberg takes his time in telling this compelling story of the African slaves who inadvertently end up in America, a symbol of a cause that would eventually tear the country apart. The film has many wonderfully cinematic passages clearly directed by a master of his craft. The opening mutiny sequence, which begins with tranquillity erupts into intense and realistic violence. It’s an astonishing opening. The film is glorious to the eye, thanks to the stunning cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, who lensed Schindler’s List. And the film has reproduced the period to perfection. Where Spielberg resorts to a studio mentality is in the anomaly of his casting. Casting Matthew McConaughey in the pivotal role of the young lawyer who ends up defending the Africans is sheer folly. With his limited experience and maturity, one never believes that this lawyer is out of the early nineteenth century. McConaughey’s dull performance lets the film down. However, in a more astute moment, Spielberg delivered some fine actors to the fold, and their presence gives the film an added texture. Seeing Anthony Hopkins as an aged ex-President delivering his moving monologue towards the film’s closing, is witnessing great acting on the screen. Hopkins is simply remarkable, from every facial and physical nuance to the pure passion of the piece. And when he and the equally poetic Morgan Freeman share screen time together, one is all too painfully aware of the rarity of great acting in today’s Hollywood. Newcomer Djimon Hounsou is a rare find, a complete novice who brings an unexpected power, passion and dignity to Cinque, while Britain’s Nigel Hawthorne and Pete Postlewaite, provide invaluable support as the Africans’ adversaries. Thematically, Amistad explores the nature of freedom and the extent one goes to in order to achieve it. Spielberg’s mastery of film language, combined with human intimacy, makes for an often powerful and important work, despite his tendency to over-sentimentalise."
Paul Fischer


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As he pores over the filmmakers' notes, Andrew L. Urban says Spielberg's film issues a challenge to Australians to discover more of their own history, in FEATURES



CAST: Djimon Hounsou, Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Nigel Hawthorne, David Paymer, Pete Postlethwaite, Stellan Skarsgård, Anna Paquin, Tomas Milian, Austin Pendleton

DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg

PRODUCER: Steven Spielberg, Debbie Allen, Colin Wilson

SCRIPT: David Franzoni


EDITOR: Michael Kahn

MUSIC: John Williams


RUNNING TIME: 152 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 19, 1998

VIDEO RELEASE: April 22, 1999
RRP: $24.95

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