Picks and Pans Review: Amistad

updated 12/15/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

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)

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