Rated R - Running time: 2:37 - Released 12/25/97

Just when you thought you had seen the best movie there is about a historic seagoing vessel, along comes Amistad. This may very well be the best movie of the year, but it may not be recognized as such because it is not about awesome special effects, which is what modern moviegoers crave. It's about acting. It's about a search for true justice that must be fought for against the prevailing ideologies of the time. It's about one of many tragic chapters etched indelibly into the history of this country.

In this largely unreported but true story, adapted for the screen by David Franzoni, a group of illegally obtained African human beings, led by a man named Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou), rose up against their captors in 1839 on board the slave ship La Amistad and took control. Although they tried to force the remaining crew to sail them back east, they finally were captured off the New England coast, where they were put back in chains and accused of murder and piracy. And from there, they underwent an incredible legal battle that took them to the highest court in this foreign land.

Although Stephen Spielberg is known for his special effects wizardry, this film shows that his Schindler's List was not a fluke: he is capable of real drama. There is some unsettling action footage about the transatlantic voyage, but most of the film is set in the courtroom. It is a very complex case, because there are several factions laying claim to La Amistad's valuable cargo, from the 11-year-old Queen Isabella II of Spain (Anna Paquin), who also ruled Cuba at the time, to the two Spaniards who survived the insurrection, to the Connecticut sailors who found the ship and now claim salvage rights. The issue of whether the Africans should be granted their freedom doesn't seem to be even under consideration. But that issue is what their self-appointed legal counsel, Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), must bring to light: If these were free people taken from their homes, then they had the right to rise up against their captors, and all the other claims are moot.

This movie is impeccably produced; every detail down to the most minute is carefully researched. The acting by Hounsou is superlative, touching to the very soul with Cinqué's emotional journey, that of one who has been put through torture and humiliation and still has the dignity to believe in himself and his people. Also impeccable is Anthony Hopkins, who plays then former president John Quincy Adams, the only president in American history (so far) to return to service in Congress after his presidency. Adams, a known abolitionist, is sought out by Baldwin for his clout and his knowledge of law, to help win this case. Hopkins, a British actor in his second role as an American president, has captured the essence of Adams late in life, a doddering old man, weary of politics, beaten down by his stormy session in the White House. Having lived his life in the shadow of his eminent father John Adams, architect of the nation, he is still sharp enough to know the difference between what we say as Americans and what we do. And still strong enough to fight for justice. "We have right at our side," he explains to the disheartened Cinqué, after the case has been won but appealed to the Supreme Court by president Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), who is up for re-election and concerned about losing the Southern vote. "We have righteousness at our side."

McConaughey's performance is also excellent, showing the difficulty of arguing a case when absolutely everyone in the room who understands, disagrees. His character, Baldwin, is actually not a trial lawyer, but one who specializes in the return of stolen goods, so he is not used to cases of this magnitude. His struggle with the law and the language barrier, with his sometimes unwilling witness and an unsympathetic populace, is shown in his face. But so is his knowledge of truth. And another face in whose that truth is particularly evident is that of Morgan Freeman, who plays Theodore Joadson, a freed slave and abolitionist who is looked upon by his African counterparts as at once a brother, a traitor, and a curiosity. When Freeman and Hounsou are face to face, their mutual undercurrent of conflicting feelings is powerfully evident.

Amistad is a moving work of art. It is not action-packed, but packed with emotion and good performances. It is every bit as good a work by Spielberg as Schindler's List, and as likely a portrayal of the drama of human suffering and triumph. *****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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