Was Steven Spielberg fated to make Amistad? "Amity," you might recall, was the name of the shark-bedeviled island in his breakthrough picture, Jaws; my dictionary defines it as "friendship, esp friendly relations between nations." Amistad, too, means "friendship" -- although the ship the movie is named for is a slave ship, and in August 1839 it catalyzed a rift between Spain and the United States and further polarized the North and South. Whether fated or not, Spielberg has pulled this movie off with the messy, overreaching passion of a man possessed.
On board La Amistad were dozens of newly enslaved Africans bound from Havana to the Cuban coastal town of Puerto Principe. Inspired by a natural leader named Cinque, they had thrown off their chains and killed the captain and ordered two surviving Spaniards to sail them back to Africa. Instead, the terrified whites surreptitiously guided the ship up the North American coastline. In Long Island Sound, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted it, freed the Spaniards, and took the Africans to a New Haven jail. The authorities saw the mutiny as plain piracy and murder. But abolitionists and independent thinkers like John Quincy Adams, the former president, viewed it as an example of the spirit of man rising up. A case that began in Connecticut ended in the Supreme Court. Queen Isabella II sniped at American presidents over Spanish property rights for roughly 20 years. Then the Civil War broke out, and it became a dead issue: Millions of Americans were fighting over the belief that blacks were humans, not property.
When Spielberg directed Jaws in 1975 (at the age of 27), he achieved instant renown as a precocious master of kinetic moviemaking. But what made Jaws work so spectacularly well was its exploratory verve -- the spontaneous, fly-on-the-beach flavor of the lulls between shark assaults, and the way the action drifted in and out of the camera's eye up to the moment of attack. Though it sounds blasphemous to say so, in its documentarylike vitality and total immersion in its subject matter, Schindler's List resembled Jaws more than either of Spielberg's cheerless pieces of dinosaur mechanics did.
So does the rich, potent Amistad. It has flaws, but lack of texture or spirit isn't one of them. Spielberg overworks the drama with symbols and swelling music, burdens it with a series of uplifting or sentimental climaxes, and tolerates the gauche performance of Matthew McConaughey as the Africans' lawyer. He's so anxious to get his points across that he repeats them, and at times slows the action down for emphasis. Yet the movie has tremendous scope and charge and a dense period fabric, along with a volcanic performance by Djimon Hounsou, the West African actor who plays Cinque. In addition to a raw, unblinking rendering of the slave trade -- a nightmare captured in harsh sunlight -- Amistad touches on international power politics, Southerners and Yankees jockeying in Washington, and the rule (and game) of law as practiced in state and federal courts.
Still, it turns out to be most of all about amity. When Cinque and John Quincy Adams come to a meeting of minds, Hounsou and Anthony Hopkins (as Adams) achieve a piercing limpidity: They team up to win the sympathetic understanding that makes friendship across borders and language barriers possible. In a daring move for a mass-audience picture (and a crucial one for its artistic success), the dynamic troupe of black actors speak in African tongues; most of their dialogue is subtitled.
The movie begins with the camera tightly focused on Cinque, as he strains to pull a nail out of a plank, then uses it to unshackle himself and his fellow slaves. His face and body drip with sweat, rain, and gore, but he's far from a simple image of the primitive unleashed. Hounsou gives the movie an intense center of consciousness; his face expresses what slavery and murder can take out of a hero. Hounsou's flashing eyes are never just the trademarks of a dashing personality -- they're semaphores of subterranean thoughts and intuitions. Throughout his marvelous performance, he plays psychic peekaboo with the audience, drawing viewers into a kind of creative complicity. He sparkles with perceptions and reactions, then swiftly covers them up, making us complete and sustain them. He puts the audience into a mind-lock. Even more than the fighting, atrocities, and judicial battles, Hounsou's interpretation of Cinque as a man of action and of wisdom imbues the film with suspense and immediacy. Your stake in his getting home isn't distant or abstract; you ache for him to reveal his greatness to the uncomprehending whites who jail, judge, and defend him. It's the movie's wonderfully satisfying conceit that in the congressman from Plymouth, John Quincy Adams -- former president, senator, diplomat, and Harvard professor, and, critically, a man of courage and principle -- Cinque finally finds his soul mate.
The forceful opening sequence, with its saber-edge design, gets across the awfulness and awkwardness of killing with a bayonet or a blade or even a slow-loading rifle. When Cinque buries a sword in the captain's chest, piercing through the planks of the deck, the act pinions our attention. Right away, Spielberg tells us that no matter how many vistas he paints of torture and incarceration, this will not be a mere spectacle of violence, nor will any individual slaughter be treated with 20th-century casualness. Even when he tries our patience, he makes good on his promise. As the movie sprawls from American campaign trails and African trade routes to the cramped quarters of slave holds, jails, and courtrooms, it continues to hold us, often at sword's point.
In Amistad, the murders -- and everything else -- are handmade. When the Africans try to forage on the North American shore and are taken aback by a man on a big-wheeled bicycle, the image does double duty: It brings home the distance between America and Africa, and between the mid-19th century and all of us. Spielberg transports us to a lost world of the past and we stay lost in it, despite John Williams' inflated score and McConaughey's tousled '90s looks. Some of the best parts of Amistad reminded me of Truffaut's The Wild Child (one of the films that inspired Spielberg to cast Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind), both in the director's use of physical details and everyday gestures to draw the contours of the time, and in the halting efforts of Cinque and his defense team to communicate. In The Wild Child (the story of an 18th-century doctor and a feral boy), Truffaut held down the emotionalism; in Amistad, Spielberg overdoes it -- but not fatally.