Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey, Djimon Hounsou

In a courtroom, whoever tells the best story wins," says former President John Quincy Adams in this historical drama about a slave-ship rebellion and its aftermath. The same is true of movies, but in Amistad director Steven Spielberg seems uncertain which story to tell—or which of his many characters to follow. It is nearly an hour into this 140-minute picture before Adams makes his pithy pronouncement and Spielberg finally concentrates on the story that viewers most want to see: about who the desperate men and women on that slave ship are and how they, or at least one of them, got there.

The tale Amistad finally tells is a true one. In 1839 a group of Africans staged a bloody takeover of the Amistad, on which they were traveling as human cargo. They were subsequently captured off the New England coast and put on trial for the murder of the ship's crew. After a long journey through the courts, abetted by behind-the-scenes string-pulling against the Africans by President Martin Van Buren, their case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court, where the elderly Adams argued on their behalf. (This neglected episode of American history has also inspired a new opera, again titled Amistad, which opened Nov. 29 in Chicago, as well as the 1989 novel Echo of Lions, by Barbara Chase-Riboud, who has filed a copyright infringement suit against Spielberg and DreamWorks Pictures, the movie's production studio.)

Touching on issues of race, politics and human rights that resonate today, this is potent stuff. But too much of Amistad plays like a particularly lavish episode of that old CBS re-creation series You Are There, minus Walter Cronkite doing on-the-spot interviews with deceased notables. And like Roots. The movie seems more dutiful than dramatic; with the exception of the leader (Hounsou) of the slave rebellion and the crusty Adams (Hopkins), it lacks the well-drawn, complex central characters who made Spielberg's earlier examination of a holocaust, Schindler's List, a masterpiece.

Still, Hopkins is perfect as Adams, sending patriotic shivers down your spine during his final impassioned address in court. Also a standout is Hounsou, a model turned actor who grew up in Benin, West Africa. Intimidating physically, he brings gravity and fire to his part. McConaughey, fussily playing a journeyman lawyer who takes on the Africans' case, impresses only slightly more here than he did with his plywood turn in last summer's Contact. Freeman, as an ex-slave and abolitionist, is wasted in an under-written role. (R)

Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgård

An MIT math professor (Skarsgård) writes an especially difficult problem on a blackboard for his whizkid students to solve. No one can figure it out. A young janitor (Damon) reads the problem while mopping the floor after class, cogitates over it briefly and then anonymously chalks in the answer. The professor then puts up a second, even tougher problem. Barely scrunching his brow, the janitor gets it right again.

The kid, it turns out, is a genius, right up there with Einstein. Named Will Hunting, he has a gift for mathematics that never stops giving. So how come Hunting is a janitor? It seems that he's an orphan who spent his formative years in abusive foster homes, has a chip as big as a house on his shoulder and a lengthy juvenile arrest record. With the help of an understanding therapist (Williams) and a loving girlfriend (Driver) who's studying premed at Harvard, Hunting has the chance to put his troubled past behind him and embrace his genius. Will he? Does 2+2=4?

It's part of the essential dishonesty of this movie that it so lopsidedly stacks the deck in favor of its hero. If he can just let Williams share his pain, and if he can conquer his tendency to start fights, he'll have the Pentagon and the Rand Corp. kissing his feet. Despite moving, effective performances by both Damon (who wrote the script with costar Affleck) and Williams, it doesn't take a genius to see that Good Will Hunting adds up to more of a feel-good fairy tale than a realistic, compelling drama. (R)

Joseph Ashton, James Cromwell, Tantoo Cardinal

In 1935, Little Tree (Ashton), a poor orphan boy, is sent to live with his mother's parents (Cromwell and Cardinal) in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. His grandmother, a Cherokee, instructs Little Tree in the details of what she refers to as "the way," a mystical understanding of the soul's place in nature. When welfare workers take Little Tree off to a boarding school of Dickensian nastiness, he learns some harsher truths about intolerance. This poky, preachy family picture, opening Dec. 25, is based on a posthumous 1986 bestseller whose author, Forrest Carter, has since been revealed as Asa Carter, a Klansman who wrote speeches for George Wallace. Little Tree, in short, has very strange roots. (PG)

>Andrew Shue

NO MORE MR. NICE GUY

FOR ANDREW SHUE, PLAYING AN ABUSIVE husband in John Grisham's The Rainmaker, the new adaptation directed by Francis Ford Coppola, was a far cry from his duties as hunky Melrose Place milquetoast Billy Campbell. "On Melrose, it's more about what's between your hairline and your chin," says Shue, 30. "Nothing against the show, but there was a distinctly different feeling working on the movie." Shue, whose past big-screen work consisted of blink-worthy parts in Adventures in Babysitting and The Karate Kid, jumped at the offer to portray a bat-wielding brute married to the character played by Claire Danes. "I was a little dumbfounded," he says. "I don't think Francis even knew what Melrose Place was, which might be a good thing."

Rainmaker casting director Linda Phillips-Palo thought Shue's choirboy looks were perfect for the small but pivotal role. "When you have a character who's going to go after a wonderful actress like Claire Danes," she says, "you've got to be able to look at this person and say, 'Well, why does she stay? What attracts her?' "

To prepare for the role, Shue turned to his sister Elisabeth, 34, who was nominated for an Oscar for 1995's Leaving Las Vegas. "She was interested in every little thing I was working on," he says. Shue, who has a 16-month-old son with wife Jennifer Hageney, is now considering life after Melrose, on which he'll appear at least for the rest of this season. "This is not my coming-out party," he says of the film. "It's just one foot in the door."

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Elizabeth Leonard.