Steven Spielberg’s historical drama “Amistad” comes to Blu-Ray March 6. Although not considered one of Spielberg’s more highly regarded efforts (despite 4 Oscar nominations), time has been somewhat kind to this epic, based on the true story of the Amistad slave mutiny of 1839.
The opening re-enactment of the mutiny is prime Spielberg, as the slaves (led by Djimon Honsou, who gives a powerfully intense Golden Globe-nominated performance) rise up against their masters at night, lit only by lightning in the distance. Few filmmakers can rival Spielberg’s skill at visual storytelling. While the style of “Amistad” is muted overall, the opening and a later harrowing flashback are remarkably effective sequences.
Once the drama comes to shore, the film turns into a courtroom drama, with Matthew McConaughey playing a young Ivy League lawyer who takes on the slaves’ case. Spielberg makes the intriguing choice to rarely subtitle the Africans, a savvy way of forcing the viewer to pay attention and understand their point of view at the same time as McConaughey. Meanwhile, the trial drags on, before ending up in the Supreme Court.
Spielberg’s staid, overly reverent tone in the film is reminiscent of his later approach to “Lincoln.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a powerhouse performance by Daniel Day-Lewis to add energy to the proceedings, despite a large cast featuring McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Hounsou, Chiwetel Ejiofor and even a young Anna Paquin as Queen Isabella.
It’s fascinating to watch McConaughey’s performance now, shortly after his Oscar victory. McConaughey tests his range here, giving an impassioned performance that’s undercut by his inability to tamp down his Texas accent. Hopkins devours the scenery and coming back for seconds in an Oscar-nominated role as John Quincy Adams. Neither his performance nor his makeup (more on that later) have aged well.
The film is also structured awkwardly, with the film seeming to end before a fourth act featuring a long speech by Hopkins and two short battle sequences, as if Spielberg felt this story about humanity needed to be “punched up.” Despite those complaints, the film is well worth seeing, especially in high definition, where Spielberg’s compositions and the Oscar-nominated cinematography can be viewed the way it was intended.
Click above to view stills from “Amistad,” as well as photos of the cast and crew. For the latest Blu-Ray news and reviews, subscribe to the Blu-Ray Examiner today.
The visuals pop on the Blu-Ray release, offering beautiful imagery that sustains even during the film’s more tedious moments. At times the high definition is almost TOO clear, with Hopkins make-up appearing in some scenes like a Kabuki mask. The sound design of the opening sequence is also superb. Dialogue is crisp and clean.
The Making of “Amistad”