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Steven Spielberg
Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman
Writing Credits:
David Franzoni

Freedom is not given. It is our right at birth. But there are some moments when it must be taken.


Box Office:
$36 million
Opening Weekend
$4,661,866 on 322 Screens
Domestic Gross

Rated R

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0
French Dolby Digital 5.1
Portuguese Dolby Digital 2.0
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 155 min.
Price: $22.98
Release Date: 5/6/2014

• ďThe Making of AmistadĒ Featurette
• Trailer


Panasonic TC-P60VT60 60-Inch 1080p 600Hz 3D Smart Plasma HDTV; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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Amistad [Blu-Ray] (1997)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 12, 2014)

As Iíve noted elsewhere, Steven Spielberg experienced almost unprecedented success in 1993. While Jurassic Park cleaned up at the box office and Schindlerís List walked away with multiple awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture.

It may not be an exaggeration to claim that no other director ever had such a prosperous year with the exception of 1939. In that year, Victor Fleming dominated cinema with both Gone With the Wind and The Wizard Of Oz.

Spielberg tried to recapture the magic in 1997. In May, he released The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park, and in the fall, he put out Amistad, another epic battle against oppression in the same vein as List.

However, duplicating the success of 1993 proved impossible. Lost World did fairly well financially, as it took in $229 million, but this represented a significant decrease after the $356 million gross of Park, and both critics and fans viewed it with much less fondness.

Nonetheless, the greeting accorded World seemed rapturous compared to what occurred when Amistad appeared. At least World inspired a reaction; Amistad moved in and out of multiplexes in a hurry, and it generated none of the passion and positivity encountered by List. Most of those who saw Amistad thought little of it, and the movie seems destined to become one of Spielbergís most obscure.

Set in 1839, the opening shot feels like an outtake from Jurassic Park, as we watch a violent lightning-punctuated rebellion aboard the slave ship ďLa AmistadĒ. The slaves kill some of the crew but retain enough men to navigate back to their homes in Africa. Unfortunately, the sailors betray them, and they end up in America. There theyíre taken captive and a legal battle emerges in regard what will become of these people.

No lawyers want to take on this emotionally charged case, but eventually a patent attorney named Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) agrees to argue on the side of the Africans. Initially he views the trial as a strict matter of property and betrays no emotions in regard to the humanity of his clients, but as he gets to know them, he starts to become more personally involved in the case. This occurs mainly through his interactions with Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), one of the leaders of the group. The two bond, and Cinque also emerges as the moral center of the film with his dramatic courtroom declaration, ďGive us, us free!Ē

I nearly choked on my popcorn during that mawkish scene, and it punctuates everything thatís wrong with Amistad. Spielberg demonstrated layers of moral responsibility and depth with other dramatic flicks such as 1987ís Empire of the Sun and List, but he becomes the sentimental hack many believe him to be when he strongly involves black characters. Between Amistad and 1985ís The Color Purple, Spielberg creates simplistic tales of absolute right and wrong that betray no sense of character nuance or dimensionality.

At least Purple avoids one of the main problems with many films that examine black-related subjects. From Mississippi Burning to Cry Freedom, these flicks often focus too strongly on white participants on the periphery instead of the blacks who deserve the lead. Purple largely omits white participants, but unfortunately, Spielberg refuses to concentrate mainly on the Africans during Amistad.

Instead, Baldwin becomes the primary role, and rather than examine the Africans and their situation, the movie largely consists of a tale about Rogerís moral awakening. In this way, it seems excessively obvious and simplistic. Roger walks through various stages of awareness in a plodding manner as he attempts to free the slaves and demonstrate that Africans are people too, not just product. His quest goes all the way to the Supreme Court, where former president John Quincy Adams takes the mantle to argue the case.

As a whole, Amistad feels contrived and calculated. As with Purple, much of the movie allows no room for interpretation or discussion; it becomes totally divided into extremely clear distinctions between good and bad. Granted, thereís not a whole lot of room for argument when it comes to slavery; I wonít disagree with Spielbergís contention that such a practice is a uniformly bad thing.

However, the movie suffers because it cast the characters into similarly black and white notions. Only Roger possesses any form of vagueness, but those attitudes exist as nothing other than a plot device to allow Spielberg to beat us over the head with its message. What exactly was that message, by the way - that slaveryís bad? Donít we already know this? Duck Dynasty stars aside, are there many who argue otherwise?

Because of the obviousness of the filmís moral, it seems pointless. While the revolt of the Amistad slaves is an interesting historical piece, it doesnít really translate well into a modern parable. I feel that Spielberg wants to use Amistad as a treatise on current racial attitudes and a plea for tolerance and understanding, but the story doesnít fit cleanly into that profile.

Instead, the tale comes across as little more than another heavy-handed and self-righteous condemnation of others who ever disagreed with the directorís notions. I certainly wonít defend slavery, but itís a mistake to try to view historical episodes purely through modern eyes. Our current notions eradicate the attitudes of the bygone era, which means that we canít truly understand them. What seems horrific to us appears natural and normal to folks in different cultures and periods.

Some would argue that as with the actions of the Nazis, slavery was absolutely indefensible regardless of the attitudes possessed within particular eras or societies, and Iíd agree with that. However, Amistad should have displayed greater depth and nuance to the characters on the non-abolitionist side of the coin. Instead, it prefers to paint them as villains without any redeeming characteristics. This makes the movie little more than a cartoon examination of the subject, and it lacks the scope that might have allowed it to breathe.

Speaking of which, virtually every aspect of Amistad batters home its messages. The Africans show no depth themselves, as they present little more than generic noble men and women totally without flaws. The movie indulges in some annoyingly cutesy moments to mock the American culture, while it never attempts to reverse the equation. That form of political correctness got old a long time ago; Iíve always hated the fact that it apparently is okay for one culture to criticize another in this way but the reverse would not be allowed.

The unilateral oppressiveness of Amistad extends to almost every element of the production. For example, John Williamsí score allows us no opportunity to think for ourselves. Instead, it beats us over the head with the movieís forced emotions and reinforces the cheap nature of the storytelling.

However, I wonít blame Williams for this, as I lay my criticism firmly at the feet of the director. With Amistad, Steven Spielberg once again gives his attackers ammunition, as he produces a movie that suffers from his main weaknesses but offers few of his strengths.

I remain a Spielberg backer, but I have to agree with his detractors that the man sometimes canít leave well enough alone. The tale behind Amistad is a valuable one, but the movie itself badly simplifies and dumbs down the story to the point where it becomes a sugary and sentimental piece of tripe.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B/ Bonus C

Amistad appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. The image held up well over the last 17 years.

Sharpness appeared crisp and detailed. I detected only the slightest signs of softness or fuzziness, especially during interiors, which can be a little tentative. Still, overall definition impressed and showed good delineation. No jagged edges or moirť effects marred the presentation, and edge haloes remained absent. I also noticed no print flaws in this clean transfer.

Colors came across as warm and natural, with strong rendering of the various tones and no concerns related to bleeding or noise. The palette could be a bit chilly, but the tones remained appropriate and strong. Black levels also appeared deep and rich, and shadow detail usually seemed appropriately heavy but not excessively dark. Amistad offered a good visual experience.

The DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of Amistad also seemed positive, though one wonít confuse it with the more active presentations of flicks like The Lost World. Amistad mainly stayed with a forward emphasis, as the soundfield largely focused on the front channels. Within that spectrum, the audio blended nicely as music and effects created a good presence. The music showed fine stereo separation, while the effects seemed accurately located and they meshed together well.

Surround usage was somewhat limited for the most part, but a few scenes brought the rears to life well; for instance, the opening thunderstorm displayed active and engaging audio. These sorts of moments were rare, but since most of Amistad stayed with human dramatic elements, the restricted scope seemed appropriate for this sort of film.

Audio quality appeared positive. Dialogue came across as consistently natural and accurate, and I detected no concerns related to edginess or intelligibility. Effects remained a fairly minor aspect of the mix outside of a few louder sequences, but they appeared clean and accurate, and they showed reasonable dynamics during logical scenes like the storm.

Music displayed nice clarity. The score consistently appeared lively and full. This might not have been a stunning soundtrack, but it suited the film.

How did the Blu-ray compare to the original 1999 DVD? Audio appeared richer and more dynamic, while visuals seemed cleaner, tighter and more film-like. The Blu-ray gave us a solid improvement over the DVD.

Most of the DVDís extras repeat here. In addition to the filmís trailer, we get The Making of Amistad. This 26-minute, 33-second program includes notes from director Steven Spielberg, production designer Rick Carter, producer Debbie Allen, and actors Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey, Djimon Hounsou, and Morgan Freeman.

This isnít a deep program, as it mainly exists to tout the film. Nonetheless, some of the actorsí comments are interesting, as they reflect on their roles and the subject matter, and we also learn a little about the storyís origins and why it got made into a movie. Best of the bunch are the shots from the set, which offer a lot of good glimpses of the program. Ultimately, this show isnít anything special, but it provides a reasonably interesting and effective view of the production.

While I expect Steven Spielbergís heart was in the right place when he made Amistad, he didnít have his head screwed on well. He ladled on the schmaltz and cheap sentiment for this bland and obvious look at a quest for freedom and one manís journey into enlightenment. The Blu-ray gave us very good picture and audio with minor bonus materials. Itís too bad the Blu-ray didnít expand upon the DVDís supplements, but it delivers the strongest presentation of the film itself.

To rate this film, visit the original review of AMISTAD

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