Is it possible that Steven Speilberg could come up with another politically probing masterpiece like “Schindler’s List?” It’s a tall order, that is nearly answered as “Amistad” commences in piercing fashion when a ship load of slaves, break free and violently slaughter their captors. After weeks of uncertain navigation the ship (the “La Amistad”) drifts into the cold coastal waters of New Haven, Connecticut, where the slaves are apprehended and charged with murder. It’s from this point that the promisingly electric history lesson lulls into a by-the-numbers, Grisham-esque courtroom melodrama. That’s why there’s such a fitting degree of irony to find Matthew McConaughey (who anchored Grisham’s “A Time to Kill”) as a righteous attorney paired with Anthony Hopkins (in a loopy stint that at times nears the embarrassment of his performance in “Legends of the Fall”) as the washed-up former Pres, John Quincy Adams, in an effort to free the slaves and spark abolition on the eve of the American Civil War.
Fortunately, the dry, courtroom banter is interjected with powerful accounts of the violent, inhumane atrocities inflicted on the slaves by Spanish merchants. These depictions are as, if not more, brutal and disturbing than the Holocaust horrors Speilberg rendered in “Schindler’s List.” Of the underutilized mega cast, Djmon Honsou shines the brightest. His portrayal of Cinque, the leader of the displaced band of African tribesmen, is devastatingly potent. Nigel Hawthorne and Anna Paquin add a dash of delectable wit and vigor in their brief, savory roles, as President Van Buren and Isabella, the prepubescent Queen of Spain, though the redoubtable Morgan Freeman is reduced to mere garnish as an abolitionist with little to say.