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Paramount // R // May 6, 2014
List Price: $22.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted April 30, 2014 | E-mail the Author

The cover insists that Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997) is "absolutely unforgettable", but it's rarely listed alongside the director's very best achievements. This adaptation of Howard Jones' Mutiny on The Amistad is, in turn, based on the events surrounding a mid-19th century Supreme Court case regarding "property ownership". The "property" in question is a group of Africans, unofficially led by Sengbe Pieh (renamed "Cinque" by his captors, and played by Djimon Hounsou), who overtake the slave ship where they're confined. The surviving captors trick them into sailing for American shores, whereupon the slaves are brought to trial to determine their fate. Abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard), along with property tax attorney Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) and others, attempt to secure the slaves' freedom, but political friction and language barriers ensure that winning won't be easy.

Amistad typically gets lumped in with Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, two of the director's most well-received films of the 1990s. It's true that all three are Serious Examinations of Serious Subjects, but Amistad can't quite pull off the tricky balance of hiding drama behind the illusion of reality. Some took offense to the film's historical liberties; not because dramatic license in a Hollywood film is avoidable, but because the film's own marketing pushed the idea that Amistad was a true story. There's also no shortage of Spielberg's sentimentality, especially during the final courtroom sequence...though much like the other two films, it's regularly hidden between deliberate acts of unspeakable brutality.

Even so, it's hard to dislike a film with such fundamental strengths. The ensemble cast delivers terrific performances all around, especially Djimon Hounsou, Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman. The former was discovered after a modelling career in Paris brought him to the United States, and his portrayal of "Cinque" boasts a terrific balance of emotional strength, vulnerability and physical presence. Freeman's contributions play to his strengths perfectly, while Hopkins' turn as John Quincy Adams provides plenty of third-act support. Unfortunately, some of these key sequences (including the closing speech by Hopkins) are paired with overcooked music cues that cheapen their effectiveness. The best scores only call attention to themselves when needed, and a film with the emotional intensity of Amistad doesn't necessarily need the extra "help". This doesn't ruin the film, of course, but it telegraphs almost every surprise along the way.

Originally released on DVD more than a decade ago, Amistad makes its high definition debut courtesy of Paramount. There's obvious attention to detail from a technical standpoint, although the complete lack of new bonus features is surprising (especially considering the continued success of relative newcomers Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey and Chiwetel Ejiofor). Nonetheless, Amistad has its fair share of fans and they'll appreciate owning it on Blu-ray.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Amistad seems to represent the film quite faithfully. The earthy color palette is slightly muted though evenly saturated, while image detail is quite strong during close-ups and wide shots alike. Obviously some of the darker sequences don't fare quite as well, but careful lighting ensures that important details don't get lost in the shadows. Textures and film grain are also steady, while the lack of excessive digital "enhancement" ensures that this film-like presentation will please new fans, Spielberg fanatics and purists alike. Amistad doesn't always paint a pretty picture, but I've no issues with the quality of Paramount's Blu-ray presentation.

DISCLAIMER: The promotional images featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p resolution.

Likewise, this dialogue-driven production may not seem like an ideal candidate for an enveloping audio presentation, but Amistad nonetheless impresses more often than not. The default DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track serves up crisp dialogue, excellent dynamic range and its fair share of surround activity during the sequences at sea, while bustling crowd scenes offer a measure of atmosphere as well. Optional French, Spanish and Portuguese dubs are offered in either Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1. The subtitles are entirely player-generated; if none are selected, they still appear on-screen during a fraction of the Mende language scenes. Selecting either English or English SDH subtitles will obviously represent the remainding non-Mende dialogue, though the latter will also provide helpful context for newcomers.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

The menu interface follows Paramount's basic template, offering smooth navigation and a simple layout. This one-disc release is housed in an "eco-friendly" keepcase and includes no insert or slipcover. The disc is locked for Region "A".

Bonus Features

Only two, which have been ported over from the 2001 DVD release. These recycled extras include a surface-level but enjoyable Behind-the-Scenes Featurette, and the film's Theatrical Trailer presented in 1080p. Of course, fans shouldn't have expected an audio commentary from the microphone-shy Spielberg, but the total lack of new bonus features is definitely a little disappointing. Like the film itself, optional English subtitles have been included during the featurette.

Final Thoughts

Amistad doesn't hold the weight or universal appeal of Steven Spielberg's very best films, but it's undoubtedly packed with great performances, memorable characters and heavy atmosphere. These fundamental strengths alone give this 1997 production an easy pass, though its somewhat bland and predictable structure keeps it from feeling as bold and important as it really should. Paramount's Blu-ray offers an obvious technical advantage over Dreamworks' 2001 DVD release, although the limited assortment of extras remains the same. Amistad won't be a film you'll want to watch very often, but there's still enough here for die-hard fans and curious newcomers to appreciate. Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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