Steven Spielberg is like Alfred Hitchcock.
A professor of mine once raised the question of whether Alfred Hitchcock was a genius or merely a carnival ride operator.
On the one hand, most of his films are exceptional pieces of work. Suspense, intellect, and morality weave through his films, giving them first-time enjoyment and multiple-viewing substance.
On the other hand, most of his movies are so easily analyzed, and were created with such calculated intent, that it’s almost as if he never created anything original, other than the process by which he made movies. Once the process was in place, it only took a minimal effort to create a new movie each time.
Spielberg’s Amistad has those qualities of Hitchcock’s. On the one hand most of my observations were favorable; Spielberg and his long-time editor Michael Kahn packed many clever insights into the movie. On the other hand, many of these insights seem mathematically calculated. They are intellectual, and smooth, not evocative or mood-setting.
Because the story is so moving, a more emotional approach from a more intuitive (and less analytical) director would have worked better.
The movie opens on a close-up of the harshly lit, animalistic face of an African man wincing in pain and determination. This man is Cinque (pronounced “SING-kay,” played by Djimon Hounsou) and he is extracting a spike from a post using only his fingernails and his willpower. He is able to free himself and others, and together, they take over the slave ship they are on, ironically named La Amistad (The Friendship, in Spanish).
None of the Africans know how to sail so they keep the ship’s captain and a skeleton crew alive. They demand to be sailed back home. Instead of heading for Africa, the ship’s captain sails to Boston where the Africans are recaptured.
Several interested parties claim ownership of the Africans. A black freeman and abolitionist, Joadson (Morgan Freeman), hires a young lawyer, Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey, showing his limited range), to file a claim for the captured Africans’ freedom.
The trial goes rather quickly and favorably for the Africans, but just as it looks like the abolitionist’s case will win, President Martin Van Buren (Nigel “King George” Hawthorne), up for re-election, appoints a new, less sympathetic judge to the case. The case is so airtight that the Africans are “freed,” in spite of the new judge, but the case is appealed over and over, all the way to the Supreme Court. Along the way, Baldwin and Joadson convince John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins, superb as always) to help them out.
Amistad is at its best when Cinque gets to tell his story. The scenes of his capture, enslavement, and sale are the most moving parts of the film. Sadly, they take very little screen time. Instead, a lot of time is spent in the courtroom or in the prison. These aspects of the story are interesting in their own right, but it’s not where I would have focused my attention.
Spielberg placed the rhetorical fights of the courtroom over the emotional battles on-board. Like many of Hitchcock’s stories, Spielberg’s is calculated rather than evocative. Here are some examples from Amistad that reveal an insightful movie, more created than born:
• Still on the Amistad, at night and through the fog, the Africans first hear chamber music in the distance, then drift past another ship. It is a ship full of rich white Americans out on a pleasure cruise. They are in the same place at the same time, yet their situations are so obviously different.
• The scene of the Africans’ initial imprisonment ends with Cinque starting to cry. Kahn cuts from his face to the face of a shiny white porcelain doll that we see belongs to the prepubescent Queen Isabella II of Spain. From a man in pain and powerless to help himself, to a spoiled brat who will never know pain with more power than she knows how to handle.
• When it first appears that Baldwin and Joadson have won their case, a new judge is appointed and it appears likely that he will overturn their decision. Their world is turned upside-down. Literally. Spielberg shows us the new judge posing for a picture through a camera lens that inverts the image.
• One of the slaves is given a Bible. He can’t understands the words, but he spends lots of time thinking about the pictures. He explains the story of Jesus to Cinque as best as he can by interpreting the pictures. They compare their own plight in America to the trials of Jesus. Right after they see the picture of the three crosses on Calvary hill, a ship sails by with three masts in the same configuration as the crosses, linking their martyrdom to his.
• Former supreme court justice Harry Blackmun, and not a professional actor, reads the final Supreme Court verdict. (He calls the ship the “Armistead.”)
Each of these examples works very well, but they seem too perfect to be natural. In each example Spielberg adds depth by comparing and contrasting Cinque’s situation with some other. But the examples don’t arise from the characters or the story; they are clearly introduced by a godlike author. The effect is that you notice the author’s winks rather than getting emotionally involved. And since the story of a slave revolt is such a rich mine for emotion, the direction of the film ends up working against the story.
I do think that Spielberg is a good director. He is very good at what he does. But his technique doesn’t work for every story. His cold calculation doesn’t work well with the hot injustice of slavery. Amistad would have been a better film from someone less thoughtful and more emotional, and Spielberg should stick to operating carnival rides.