Thursday, August 26, 2010

History According to Spielberg: Amistad

Steven Spielberg, master of the sensational blockbuster, directed the 1997 film Amistad, a fictionalized version of a pre-Civil War event which saw the release of illegally obtained slaves.  This group of African men found themselves in America only after a shipboard revolt allowed them an attempt to steer the ship back to Sierra Leone, and eventually through several court trails were returned home to Africa
I wanted to title this post: How Spielberg Ruins Great Films, A Case Study, but then I thought better of it, after all, aren't we all supposed to love Spielberg? Is it not true that everything he touches turns to cinematic molasses (sticky, tasty and filling)?  Spielberg certainly owns the formula for wildly popular cinema, but when art, and in this case film, is made to be highly appealing invariably that special magical something gets lost in translation. 
Thus is the case with Amistad.  A tragic misfire from casting to soundtrack, but still a power packed double knockout of a story non the less, with brilliant cinematography and Spielberg's signature use of informative light sources, Amistad becomes a bit of an art critical enigma.
Was it Sir Anthony Hopkins befuddled performance as John Quincy Adams, or Matthew McHottie Hottie (Matthew McConaughey) and his type cast role playing the same eccentrically wacky fish-out-of-water character as the slave groups lawyer, or could it have been the ridiculous Spanish accent that a young Anna Paquin spat out like ninja throwing stars aimed for the eardrums, in her performance as the Spanish Queen Isabella...which one of these was the irritating straw that broke the film critics will to like the film? As much as it pains me, unfortunately is was none of these flaws that broke my spirits as I watched what could have been a brilliant piece of important film, instead, it was the over the top, crescendo heavy soundtrack that ebbed and queued, and crashed and flowered for every single momentary emotional rivet and divide present within the 155 minute film. No wonder it was nominated for 4 Academy Awards...they love it when a film allows an audience to slip comfortably in and out of passively viewing a politically relevant piece of fluffy history.  The gloriously triumphant conclusion far out-weighs the tragedy, as is customary in a Hollywood blockbuster, even if it is based truth...a re-representation of an actual incendiary event which led in time to the bloody American Civil War.
Amistad saving grace, in my opinion, was the performance given by Djimon Hounsou.  A performance as powerful as a lions roar, gritty, emotional, angry, Hounsou paced across the screen the very embodiment of injustice, of suffering, of human perseverance and hope. He was astonishingly magnificent - the perfect tragic hero, just as he was in the films Blood Diamond and In America. But surprise, surprise - no Oscar nomination for this performance.  The Academy instead honored Hopkins and John Williams for his score.