Spielberg tends to have good instincts about stories, so why he picked this particular story to make into a movie truly confuses me. The Amistad was a slave ship where the slaves rebelled and killed their captors, and when they landed in America there was a lengthy legal fight to figure out what to do with them – set them free to return to Africa, return them to the people that had purchased them, return them to the Spaniards that owned the boat or give them to the naval officers who claimed salvage on the semi-wrecked ship.

The problem with doing a legal thriller from the perspective of a hundred and fifty years later is that the weight of history is already upon the story; the moral imperative is already clear, so we as modern viewers cannot feel any of the tension that observers at the time would have felt about a story that touched on the abolition / slave controversy that was about to rip America apart. To make the case have any narrative pulse at all it would have to suffer some series of setbacks, but at every step of the court process the good guys have a clear and decisive argument to make which allows them to win. Even worse, their argument actually doesn’t work from a moral standpoint – they win their case on the legal technicality about who you are allowed to sell as a slave, and they explicitly do not challenge the basic existence of slavery or speak much beyond the crisis that afflicts the two dozen men aboard the Amistad because that’s a bad legal strategy. Worse yet, it’s a Spielberg film, so even though the actual argument is narrow and cut and dried, the film still works towards a big finish where a wisened John Quincy Adams makes a big speech about the nature of freedom before the Supreme Court, who for some reason don’t tell him to shut the hell up and get back to arguing the actual case he’s there to present.

I can understand why the broad outlines of the case are compelling, but most legal thrillers are a bit of a hard sell anyway, and the specifics of this case are so narrow and the situation so old that dramatizing this case in a way that would make it seem vital seems almost impossible to me. There are some good scenes here, but the bulk of the film feels overlong, preachy and dull.

Winner: The Cat

Amistad on IMDB