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IN SHORT: Another addition to Cranky's Best of the Year list.
When Cranky was in film school, all those years ago, the writing instructors went on endlessly about the most basic story: a man in situation that he is unprepared for, and how he adapts or deals with it. He can fold. He can fight. He can split the diff and do both, in varying degrees of severity. And, if the story is a true one, he may wait 150 or so years for a Steven Spielberg-type director to make a film of it.
If there is one thing most of us have in common, it's that we all had enough of History back in school. Those of you still saddled with book learning probably have no interest in spending cash dollars to get more learnin'. So, think of Steven Spielberg's Amistad this way: What would you do if you found yourself in a land that is totally alien to you? The clothing is alien. The religion, the language, the behavior of people towards each other are all beyond your comprehension. Even the meaning of the words is different -- since no one knows how to translate the language.
Amistad paints a broad picture of a time in American history when the issue of the right or wrong of slavery was starting to come to a head. Confronted with a culture always dismissed as barbaric, some of the more "liberal" men of the time discover that the "barbarians" have the same root beliefs and emotions that they did.
The story of Amistad is simple. A boatload of Africans, led by a man called Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) rebelled against the Cubans who were going to sell them into slavery. All but two Cubans were killed, the survivors kept alive solely to guide the ship back to Africa. What they did was guide it to nowhere (off the coast of Long Island) where it was captured by an American naval ship. The Africans were jailed in Connecticut and put on trial for murder.
Real life Abolitionist Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard) and the film composite Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) took up the fight to free the Africans. The only lawyer they could get, Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), argued the case that slaves are property, and thus cannot be tried for murder. The sitting President, Martin Van Buren (Nathaniel Hawthorne) overturned the first pro-African verdict. A retired President, the somewhat cranky and cantankerous John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) would argue the appeal in front of the Supreme Court. The case was incredibly controversial in its day and, for reasons we can only speculate about, was quickly forgotten once it was over.
Spielberg and his cast have gone beyond costume drama. Anthony Hopkins' Adams is a portrayal that you can't take your eyes off of. Newcomer Djimon Honsou delivers an exceptionally emotional performance as Cinque, all the more exceptional when you consider that very little of it is delivered in English. Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey, Nigel Hawthorne and Pete Postlethwaite (as the Prosecuting attorney) are equally first rate.
Amistad is so powerful it got me to crack open a history book for the first time in twenty years.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Amistad, he would have paid . . .
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