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Steven Spielberg has a rich palette to work with here: not only is the story of the slave rebellion on the ship La Amistad in 1839 a good one, but it has the undeniable cachet of actually being true. When a group of slaves are caught after the fact, a group of ragtag abolitionists try to save their lives, enlisting the help of an idealistic young lawyer, and eventually the wizened, crusty sagacity of John Quincy Adams himself.

Spielberg knows how to make a movie, and there are some harrowing touches to "Amistad" that stick with you long after the flick has faded. The way he uses the ships' masts to convey the crucifixes—only recently understood by the slaves—is a nice touch, and JQ Adams' speech about ancestry—standing in front of a blurry portrait of his famous founding father—is poignantly effective. Anthony Hopkins, of course, is terrifically senile and omniscient as the fourth president. And Djimon Hounsou is a rare find as the leader of the slaves, able to portray wrenching honesty without a word of English.

Unfortunately, Spielberg is incapable of subtlety for long, and soon we are met with the swooning dialogue, orchestral swells and the pungent, freeze-dried emotion that has become his domain. Every time the audience is close to making up their own mind as to how to feel, along comes Spielberg with a nail gun, bulletting his Major Themes to our collective foreheads. Like someone giving us a hard backrub that lasts too long, we're left unable to feel much of anything—just the vague sense that there was a great movie in here if only we'd been left to discover it for ourselves.

—Ian Williams

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© Copyright 2002 Ian Williams