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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/29/99

1998 (1999) - DreamWorks S.K.G.

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Amistad Film Rating: B+
Amistad is a very good film - not up to the level of Spielberg's other work, but solid in and of itself. There's an important story being told here. And the film is worth a watch for the tremendous performances of its cast alone, particularly Hounsou and Hopkins.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A+/A/B
The anamorphic widescreen video quality is excellent, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is nicely immersive. The disc is well designed, with excellent menus and navigation. A couple of good extras round it out.

Overall Rating: A
A great DVD version of a powerful film. The quality is definitely on the level of what we've come to expect from DreamWorks, if with just a few less extras. Not that I'm complaining. Definitely a must see disc.

Specs and Features

155 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ???), Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, "behind-the-scenes" featurette, production notes, cast & crew bios, film-themed menu screens with animation and sound effects, scene access (24 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, Close Captioned


The year is 1839, and aboard the Spanish ship La Amistad, a young African male (named Cinqué by his captors, played by Djimon Hounsou), leads a bloody revolt, taking control of the ship. He and fellows were sold illegally into slavery, and are on their way to "market" in America. Lacking the knowledge to steer the ship back to their homeland, Cinqué and his group are taken into custody, when the ship is intercepted off the American coast. Considered cargo - property - several parties claim ownership of them in a local court, including the Queen of Spain. But a pair of Northern abolitionists (Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgard) decides to argue for their freedom, hoping that a victory may be the political linchpin they need to further their cause. They eventually hire a small time property lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) to argue their case, and surprisingly, he manages to win. But President Van Buren, under heavy political pressure from the South, fears that a victory that frees the Africans could spark a Civil War, so he appeals the decision to ever higher courts, finally landing the case before the Supreme Court itself. With so much hanging in the balance, former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) himself comes out of retirement to argue in favor the rights of the Africans, and indeed all men, in what history came to call "The Trial of the Presidents".

Director Steven Spielberg has a clear and strong affinity for telling a historical story, and he has certainly proven himself capable of doing so powerfully, with films like Saving Private Ryan, The Color Purple, and his masterpiece Schindler's List. Amistad is not quite on the same level as these films. When retelling a historical event on film, there's a certain responsibility to get it right - accuracy is the thing. The very fact that the events depicted in Amistad actually happened, lends a certain gravity to the film, but it's also the film's weakness. The real Amistad uprising made headlines so long ago, because it ended up being argued fiercely in court, the Supreme Court no less, in a case with very far reaching implications. So about halfway in, the film changes from a powerful, and brutal, depiction of the uprising itself (and Cinqué's story), to what is essentially a courtroom drama. And better such dramas have been done. Still, this is an important story to tell, and one that history has mostly overlooked (I've never been a big Debbie Allen fan, but I'm glad she fought hard to get this film made). The direction, writing, and score (by composer John Williams) are all very good indeed. And the story is well told, featuring some excellent performances by a first-rate cast.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the stunning work by first-timer Djimon Hounsou. I'm sure you're all familiar with his story by now - how he was, at one time, living homeless on the streets of Paris, until he was discovered by a photographer. His work here is nothing short of incredible. He's full of heart, and LIFE - he just breathes life into Cinqué. I really can't do his performance justice here, except to say that you must see it to fully appreciate it. I hope Hounsou has a very long acting career ahead of him, because he's just amazing on screen. Sir Anthony Hopkins is also wonderful, turning in another of his virtuoso performances. Hopkins seems to have this incredible ability to disappear into his characters - what other contemporary male actor could credibly play Pablo Picasso, Richard Nixon, Hannibal Lecter and John Quincy Adams, and actually manage to do justice to each? His closing argument before the Supreme Court as Adams (here in Amistad) is stirring to say the least, delivered with just the right measure of wisdom and clarity that we can easily believe come from the character's age and having once been President. Morgan Freeman is always excellent, and he's very good here, although his role is more limited that one might expect, with less opportunity to show his ability. And Matthew McConaughey is... well himself. And I don't really mean that in a bad way. Matthew is best in roles that demand an "everyman" sort of performance, and he's very good at that. He is what he is, and all you have to do is believe he's an everyman for his performance to work. My personal opinion is that he's fine here, although some have criticized his work in this film.

This DVD says DreamWorks on the box, and that's come to mean something with fans of the format. You can expect top video and audio quality from a DreamWorks disc, along with very well designed navigation, beautiful animated menus, and a horde of extras. And with the exception of the horde of extras, Amistad delivers.

The video, in full anamorphic widescreen, is excellent. The detail is crisp with virtually no noticeable artifacts or grain. Color is rich and accurate, with deep blacks and good contrast. This is, simply put, a reference quality image. Look, if you will, at the scenes of the revolt itself (chapter 1) - the action takes place at night, during a rainstorm, and yet the image is perfectly clean and detailed. To give you an idea how detailed the image remains, even in the deepest black areas of the picture, look at the shots of Cinqué at the helm of the ship, attempting to steer La Amistad at night, against a backdrop of stars - simply an incredible image. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is equally good, rendering a rich, atmospheric sound field, with deep bass, and excellent clarity of dialogue. From the quiet, reverent moments as Cinqué reveals his story, to the sharp report of cannon fire, this is a very dynamic surround mix, while remaining very natural sounding. Even the score sounds magnificent, nicely blended within the mix.

I've come to really love the way that DreamWorks structures the navigation of their DVDs. I dig not having to sit through the usual "warning" and copyright screens when I pop the disc in my player - you get right into the meat of the disc. I love not having to keep hitting "enter" on my remote, to go to the next page in the scene selection menu - rather you just have to highlight the next page, and away you go. I also love the care DreamWorks puts into the transitions from page to page. Here we see a splash of sea water, which washes the next page on. These are all very nice touches, and as they say, "the Devil's in the details".

As for extras, you get a very good behind-the-scenes featurette, which I seem to recall seeing before as an HBO First Look. Repackaged or not, it's a great little featurette, of substantial length, and with a very good look at each of the characters, the story, and the effort made to tell it. A theatrical trailer of excellent quality is also included, as are several pages of production notes and bios. The only thing I would have liked here was a director's commentary track, but as most of you know, Spielberg has never really done one for any of his films. Make no mistake - I'm picking nits here. Amistad is a great DVD.

Bottom line

Forget 1941 - THIS is the kind of quality Spielberg fans should demand from the director's films on DVD. Sure, it would be nice if there were a few more extras, but quality is the key in my book. And this disc is all about quality, coming as it does from a studio that has taken DVD very seriously indeed. I'm very grateful that Saving Private Ryan, when it does find its way to DVD, will be a DreamWorks disc. Now if we could just get Steven to do a commentary track...

Bill Hunt
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