Amistad (1997)

2016 #16
Steven Spielberg | 155 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English, Mende & Spanish | 15 / R

Feeling in need of more intellectual fare after helming The Lost World, Spielberg turned to a project already in development at Dreamworks: an adaptation of a non-fiction book about the 1839 mutiny on the slave ship La Amistad, and the ensuing legal battle. Although not poorly received by critics, there’s a sense that the consensus view dubbed it “black Schindler’s List”, the implication being that by aping the earlier film it was inevitably inferior. I don’t think that’s a watertight chain of logic, but, nonetheless, Amistad is clearly a ‘minor Spielberg’.

Despite being “a slavery drama”, most of the film functions as a legal drama: though it begins with the slave uprising, and later has an extended flashback showing their kidnap and transportation, the thrust of the film lies in the courtroom arguments about who owns the ship’s ‘cargo’ and consequently what should be done with them. This is a period when capturing Africans into slavery, and by extension their subsequent transportation, was illegal by international agreement, but actually owning slaves was not yet banned (at least in the US). It’s before the American Civil War too, so there’s a political dimension: if these ‘slaves’ are freed, what tension might that spark between the north and south?

Though Spielberg is certainly not immune to the Africans’ plight — the depiction of life on a slave ship is appropriately harrowing — it’s clear from early on which side he expects us to identify with, in terms of cultural background if not shared morality: as survivors of the mutiny talk the next day, the slavers’ Spanish dialogue is subtitled but the slaves’ African dialect is not. It’s a simple but effective technique to align us with one side — as I say, not morally (in no regard is Spielberg trying to apologise for the slavers), but socially. Unfortunately, it’s not sustainable: later, when we need to understand the Africans to follow a scene’s point, their dialogue is suddenly subtitled, and from then it’s sporadically translated as needed. I can see why that choice was made, but it makes the unsubtitled bits feel like a cheat.

In most other regards, it’s kind of an old-fashioned movie. In a few ways that works: it’s got classical cinematography, both the use of film (obviously, this being well before mainstream adoption of digital) and the framing, the pace, the editing. In other respects… well, it feels very late ’90s now, the overall style of the screenplay and the treatment of the story reminding you that it’s not actually a moderately-recent film (which I guess I’d personally filed it away as, being the most recent of Spielberg’s pre-2010s films that I’d not seen), but is now nearly 20 years old. And, though I may be damned for criticising him twice in as many weeks, John Williams’ score is a little heavy-handed.

This can be said of Spielberg’s approach to the drama, too. Some of the courtroom stuff is suitably mired in legal technicalities and argument, but by film’s end it gets a little bit too… what’s the word? Not “preachy”. Not “sentimental”, exactly, though it’s born of that old criticism of Spielberg. “Melodramatic” may be on the money, though. It doesn’t help that everything reaches a climax — not only narratively, but also in the way it’s written, shot, acted, and scored — only for it to be revealed that it’s just the end of act two. Okay, that’s the truth of what happened (or near enough, for the purposes of this dramatisation), and by adapting it in that way it emulates the emotions the characters experienced; but from the audience’s perspective, you feel like you’ve reached the end… only to be served up another half-hour of movie. And it’s a long film too, so you feel that. It gets by because it’s fundamentally a good film, with strong performances and technical merits, but it’s a little bumpy for a bit.

There also seem to be a startling array of factual inaccuracies to level at the film. As ever with fictional adaptations of real life, it’s a difficult line. No fact-based fiction is 100% like reality, especially when you factor in unavoidable variances in people’s memories and opinions. However, the more serious or famous the events being depicted, or the more they’re being used to indicate some wider point about their setting, the greater the responsibility to present something that is at least passably accurate. I think some would contend that Amistad is not that. I’m no expert, but this section on Wikipedia, which is bolstered by multiple citations to suggest its accuracy, indicates the extent of the issue.

It’s easy to criticise Amistad, because Spielberg makes the production of very good movies look effortless, so the missteps stand out all the more. The story of La Amistad and its ‘cargo’ is a powerful one, and Spielberg has — naturally — turned it into a good film; but by remixing history to over-egg the message, it loses a little something. A valiant effort, but a film like 12 Years a Slave makes many of the same points in a less grandiose manner.

4 out of 5

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

2010 #11
Otto Preminger | 154 mins | TV | 12

Anatomy of a Murder is a courtroom drama, adapted from a novel by a real-life defence attorney (“defense attorney”, I suppose), who in turn based his fiction on a real case. This background not only adds to the veracity of what we see, but likely explains the film’s style and structure.

The story is intensely procedural: we meet the lead character, defence attorney Paul Biegler (James Stewart), moments before he first learns of the case; leave the story almost immediately after the verdict; and in between, every single scene is bent to Biegler’s research and the trial itself. It’s so thorough, accurate and real that it is (reportedly) still used as a working example in law education. The complete lack of flashbacks or definitive truth is a perfectly judged part of this: we only know what Biegler would; only hear what would come up in trial; can only be as certain as he and the jury are of the motives and testimonies of all involved.

By the end we have a verdict from the trial, but Preminger leaves what happened slightly ambiguous. We know what everyone claims happened and the facts of what little evidence there is, but there’s still room for interpretation. Despite this, Preminger, Stewart and screenwriter Wendell Mayes have us rooting for the murderer and his attorney by the end: Biegler’s case may be dubious, the man he’s defending likely guilty, but the moment he casually hands over the law book that contains the case-turning precedent is almost victorious; and the moment where the final witness is cross-examined had me literally sitting forward in my seat (this, I should point out, is not a regular occurrence), just waiting for the irritatingly slick and cocksure A.D.A. to ask that one question, fatal to his prosecution… and when he finally does, and receives the answer that we know is inevitable — and, crucially and brilliantly, so does a suddenly-unobjecting Biegler — is triumphant. It’s a perfectly constructed climax to a perfectly constructed tale.

A lot of this support is down to Stewart’s performance — it feels wrong to be cheering the defence counsel of a murderer, even if he had a justifiable motive (which, remember, he may not have) — but we’d probably cheer Stewart on if he was the murderer. His Biegler is always in control, from investigation to courtroom, even when by rights he should be completely out of it. He manipulates the judge, the prosecution, the jury and the crowd to perfection; the viewer sits by his side — we know he’s playing them so we can revel in it — but, in turn, he manipulates us too, tempting us to his team — to laugh at his jokes, to support his case, to loathe the prosecution, even though they might be right. It’s a stellar lead performance.

But in the face of this no one drops a trick — the cast are without exception fabulous. Lee Remick is stunning as Laura Manion, a case of truly faultless casting as she plays every femme fatale-esque beat to perfection. From forthright temptress to harassed and frightened under the glare of cross examination, she is never less than wholly believable. Her performance is second only to Stewart’s by default. Then there’s George C. Scott as that A.D.A., pitched exactly right between slimy and righteous, quiet and controlled at all times, apparently aware that Biegler is playing everyone but unable to prevent it — and most certainly not above using equally underhand tactics.

I could just as well go on to praise Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Brooks West, even the smaller roles occupied by Kathryn Grant, Orson Bean, Murray Hamilton and others. Some criticise Joseph N. Welch’s judge, and it’s perhaps true that his performance is a little less refined than the others, but as a slightly eccentric judge he comes off fine. And to round things off, there’s an incredibly cute dog. Mayes’ screenplay is a gift to them all, finding room for character even within the ceaselessly procedural structure, using small dashes of dialogue or passing moments to reveal and deepen each one.

There are police and legal procedurals on TV all the time these days, but that doesn’t detract from the powerful screenplay, acting and direction here. Perhaps it’s the realism, perhaps it’s a collection of filmmakers at the top of their game, but even after innumerable 45- to 90-minute chunks of this kind of thing being served up several times a week, Preminger and co can keep it thoroughly engrossing for a full 160. I can’t think of a current TV show that could manage the same feat. Absolutely brilliant.

5 out of 5

Anatomy of a Murder placed 4th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010, which can be read in full here.

A Few Good Men (1992)

2009 #38
Rob Reiner | 138 mins | download | 15 / R

A Few Good MenSometimes you have to wonder where it all went wrong. I can only imagine how good things looked for Rob Reiner at the start of the ’90s, when he’d had an almost-interrupted near-decade-long run of acclaimed movies in the director’s chair: This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, and finally this. ‘Finally’ being the operative word however, as it all seems to have gone down hill from there, to the extent that I actually felt the need to look him up on IMDb to check if he was still working/alive. (He’s both, having recently directed The Bucket List, a bit of a hit if I recall correctly.) Reiner is a recognisable name, and if he’d stopped making films after A Few Good Men perhaps he’d find himself bandied about on lists of Great Directors (at least in certain circles/magazines), but the fact I had to check what he’s been up to (and had forgotten how many acclaimed films he’d made in the first place) shows what a 15-year run of nothingy films can do for your reputation. Even the career of Spinal Tap themselves seems to be in better condition.

All that said, A Few Good Men isn’t really Reiner’s show. It’s not that he does a bad job — far from it — but courtroom dramas primarily depend on two things, even more so than most films: the quality of the writing and the quality of the performances. When you have scene after scene in which a handful of people battle with words alone, often in one-on-one confrontations, then those two elements are virtually all you’ve got. Of course camerawork, editing, music and the rest still have their part to play, but without the underpinning of good writing and good performances the technical attributes are merely fighting to cover for significant shortcomings. Fortunately, A Few Good Men has those underpinnings.

In this case the screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin, adapting from his own play, who would go on to create and write a great deal of The West Wing (which, incidentally, was inspired by leftover ideas from a later Sorkin/Reiner collaboration, The American President). The seeds of that show’s influential style are in evidence here, although the sheer pace and famous ‘Walk and Talk’ scenes aren’t yet part of the formula. As in The West Wing, Sorkin’s writing is both intelligent and witty, a hallmark of high-quality writing that’s able to rise above the shackles of “it’s not real drama unless it’s all grimly serious”. His characters and their personal story arcs may be straight from the stock pile — Tom Cruise is the hot-shot young lawyer who’s actually trying to live up to his daddy (and comes through in the end); Demi Moore is the goody-two-shoes woman trying to make it in a man’s world (who learns to work with her colleagues); and so on — but the plotting of the central case remains undiminished, and Sorkin thankfully avoids such obvious subplots as a romance between Cruise and Moore’s initially-mismatched-but-ultimately-mutually-respectful good guys. Nonetheless, the occasional lapses into extreme, often patriotic, sentiment that would later mar the odd episode of The West Wing are also on show here, most notably at the climax, though they fail to do any serious damage.

It’s in the all-important court scenes that Sorkin’s writing really shines. Dialogue flies back and forth like bullets, full of protocol and technical jargon — like in The West Wing — that we either understand or, when we don’t, get enough of the gist to follow the key plot points — like in The West Wing. The biggie is the final confrontation between Lt. Kaffee and Col. Jessep, an interview that’s the courtroom equivalent of a high noon showdown. It’s true that Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson plays Jack Nicholson, just as they almost always do, but it makes for a grand act-off. It’s fair to say that Nicholson comes out the victor, gifted with material that guides him from cocksure commanding officer to angry thug in just a few minutes, but it’s the bravado of Cruise’s questioning — undercut with uncertainty and genuine surprise when he pulls it off — that pushes Jessep there.

There are plenty of other good performances — typically competent work from Kevin Pollak doing the best friend thing and Kevin Bacon doing the friend-turned-rival thing, while Kiefer Sutherland’s ‘head bully’ role is memorable and Demi Moore holds her own better than the rest of her career might suggest — but this is undoubtedly a showcase for Nicholson and Cruise, and through them Sorkin’s writing. Not to mention that there are some nice directorial flourishes from Reiner. I wonder what happened to him?

4 out of 5

A Few Good Men is showing on Five tonight at 10pm.