Bag of Tricks Weighs Down Spielberg's 'Amistad'

Steven Spielberg is most acclaimed for fantasy-adventures like the "Jurassic Park" and "Indiana Jones" movies, which rank among the most profitable pictures ever made.

But three years ago his career took an unexpected turn with "Schindler's List," where he tackled a dark and difficult subject - Nazi genocide - with enough power and insight to establish his long-awaited credentials as a genuinely mature filmmaker.

"Amistad" his first production for the DreamWorks studio and one that has been surrounded by copyright controversy, again tries to dramatize a daunting historical event in compelling mass-audience terms. This time the results are a lot less impressive.

One episode, showing the Holocaust-like suffering of Africans on a slave ship, gains the massive emotional force its subject deserves. Other scenes suffer from Spielberg's habit of squeezing rich material into Hollywood formulas. Many are stilted, simplistic, and woodenly performed.

The tale begins with a violent uprising of captive West Africans against the Spanish slave-traders who are shipping them into bondage. Adrift at sea, they are tricked into navigating toward the American coast, where they are captured and imprisoned for their mutiny.

This raises complicated questions about how US law should treat the refugees. Are they mere possessions? Or full-fledged humans with a right to freedom? Or slaves-in-the-making whose destiny depends on whose control they happen to fall under?

While the group languishes in a Connecticut jail, some freedom-minded Americans - a black abolitionist, a white lawyer - decide to champion their cause. But their hard-won victory is reversed for political reasons, leading to a Supreme Court battle, in which former President John Quincy Adams fights for their liberty. Against him is Martin Van Buren, the current president, who wants to woo Southern voters and placate the Spanish queen.

This is gripping material, hardly needing cinematic gimmicks to boost its power. Spielberg delves into his bag of tricks anyway, chopping the story into heavily edited sequences that leap from shot to shot as frenetically as a hard-sell TV commercial. Some images are stunning to look at, but they rarely stay around long enough to savor. The overall pace leaves little time to think about the story, much less absorb its historical subtleties and learn the lessons they might teach.

David Franzoni's screenplay is also manipulative, turning inherently dramatic speeches and conversations into ponderous wordfests delivered by gifted actors (Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman) with little conviction.

As if to liven things up, one courtroom debate is interrupted when the main African character breaks into a plaintive chant accompanied by lachrymose music on the soundtrack - for no reason except Spielberg's apparent worry that the legal stuff might get boring, so he'd better kick in some sentimentality for good measure.

Also irksome is the decision to allow just one African character, a man named Cinque, to emerge as a fully rounded individual; the rest are treated as an undifferentiated group. "Schindler's List" was criticized for similar treatment of its Jewish characters.

The white "Amistad" characters don't fare much better. In one plot twist, for instance, a young judge has the courage to make a very unexpected ruling, but this is depicted as an arbitrary surprise, with no hint of the inner struggle - psychological, moral, even spiritual - that must have led up to it.

In its publicity, DreamWorks claims that Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky prepared by studying the paintings of Francisco Goya, which were "characterized by their unromanticized realism." This is a flat-out misrepresentation of "Amistad," which is drenched so stiflingly in romanticized mistiness that "realism" is one of the last words an honest account would choose to describe it.

Despite its many shortcomings, "Amistad" has the energy and earnestness of most Spielberg pictures, and these qualities - along with the clear importance of its subject matter - might turn it into a middling success, if not an outright hit. This makes it all the more regrettable that the filmmakers didn't probe their potentially riveting material more deeply and truly.

* Rated R; contains violence and nudity.

Correction

In the story on family videos in the Monitor on Dec. 9, Page 12, the photo caption should have identified the pictured actress as Tina Majorino. Anna Paquin should have been identified as starring in "Fly Away Home."

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