If there was one picture this year that seemed destined to reap the whole works, it’s Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad.” It practically adheres to the Academy’s full checklist of prerequisites:
A shrewdly cast, year-end Spielberg film, it’s a huge and sweeping historical epic and a story of to-the-quick racial tension and uncommon heroism in the face of great odds.
Following up on his previous epic of racial inhumanity, the multi-Oscar-winning best picture, “Shindler’s List,” Spielberg focuses on the story of captured African slaves who engineer a shackle-breaking mutiny off American shores aboard the title vessel in 1839, which ignited a human rights conflict between President Martin van Buren and founding father and former President John Quincy Adams.
One precedent exists for the racial-cauldron period piece not working the second time around — Alan Parker’s flop of the Asian-American epic “Come See the Paradise” (1990) following the multi-Oscar nominated “Mississippi Burning” (1988) — but Spielberg is in his own league, and he’s assembled a high-gold-yield team of veterans to do his bidding. Newcomer Djimon Hounsou plays the lead among the insurgents, and he’s surrounded by the best three-time Oscar nominee Morgan Freeman, Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins (for “The Silence of the Lambs”) and past Oscar nominees Nigel Hawthorne, David Paymer and Pete Postlethwaite along with the upstart hunk of the 1990s, Matthew McConaughey, and the star of last year’s nominated “Breaking the Waves,” Stellan Skarsgard.
As usual for a Spielberg picture, five-time Oscar winner John Williams composed the score, while Spielberg’s Oscar-winning cinematographer for “Schindler’s List,” Janusz Kaminski, is the DP.
There’s every reason to expect that this picture, Spielberg, the cast and crew will not only continue their tight relationships with Oscar but the film might also become the key foundation piece for the future of DreamWorks Pictures. Nominations could run into double figures if David Franzoni’s screenplay and Spielberg have inspired the others to recreate the sorrow and tragedy of the slaving era in the same rare way they achieved results with “Schindler’s List.”
Classic Oscar credentials: 10
(Period epic with a purpose)
Cause celebre: 8 (Plagiarism accusations notwithstanding)
Vanity element: 5
The David vs. Goliath syndrome: 1 (Plagiarism accusations could inspire sympathy)
The feel-good movie of the year factor: 9 (Brought to you by the man who gave you “E.T.” )
The unavoidable, inexorable buzz pic: 5
Idiot savants have more fun: 0
Timing is everything: 10
O.Q. total: 48