Stop Stomping Spielberg! Amistad Floats; The Rainmaker Does, Too

Steven Spielberg’s Amistad , from a screenplay by David Franzoni, strikes me as Mr. Spielberg’s most accomplished work since Empire of the Sun (1987). There are so many ways Amistad could have gone wrong. Its subject is so morally one-sided that one would expect a measure of cartoonish villainy in the depiction of its villains, not to mention a heavy coating of plaster sainthood for its chained slaves. At best, one could have anticipated something between the glibness of Schindler’s List (1993) and the glossiness of The Color Purple (1985). At the very least, we hip debunkers might have been licking our lips at an opportunity to join in the Schadenfreude of sneering and jeering at the latest mishap of the Dreamworks supermoguls, particularly their box-office Superman, Mr. Spielberg.

Well, we’ll just have to postpone our stomping on Steven Spielberg. Amistad just happens to be a good movie, both edifying and entertaining for all of its 150 minutes. And, miracle of miracles, it never becomes turgid or tendentious. Amistad , like The Titanic , provides disconcerting evidence for us hair-shirt esthetes that spending a lot of money on massive spectacle need not prove a fatal handicap for a filmmaker if what George Bush once designated as the vision thing remains intact and inspired.

Actors I have admired before like Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, David Paymer, Pete Postlethwaite, Stellan Skarsgard, Anna Paquin, Paul Guilfoyle II, Peter Firth and Arliss Howard perform well above and beyond the call of duty. But I was especially surprised and gratified by the way the hitherto overhyped Matthew McConaughey infused the indispensable common-sense raisonneur role of real estate lawyer Baldwin with force, insightfulness and humor. Without Mr. McConaughey’s Baldwin serving to break up the rhythm of the noble rhetoric, the movie would have become an overlong sermon on the evils of slavery. Mr. Hopkins gets the biggest laughs with his end-of-career, end-of-life eccentricities as ex-President John Quincy Adams, but his path has been prepared by the redemptive conversion of the initially cynical Baldwin character to the proposition that a band of seemingly “savage” African slave-mutineers were intelligent human beings capable of the deepest and noblest feelings.

Djimon Hounsou as Cinqué, the most articulate and most heroic of the embattled slaves, gives Amistad its most electrifying moments of spiritual communion through a shared humanity, largely because Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Franzoni have astutely spaced his expressive appearances on the screen infrequently enough for maximum effect. The barrier between languages has to be broken before the chains can be removed, and, thus, words ultimately become more powerful than armies or mere treaties between sovereign nations.

To their credit, Mr. Spielberg, Mr. Franzoni and all their gifted collaborators do not gloss over the complicity of Africans in the enslavement of their own people. Evil is too resourceful and too universal to be vanquished in one showcase trial begun in Connecticut near the middle of the 19th century. Amistad does not even begin to address all the nuances of color barriers in contemporary America. Nor does the film end on notes of feel-good triumph and survival, as did Schindler’s List . All that is propounded in Amistad is the simple truth that we are all brothers and sisters under only the skin. It is only on rare occasions, however, that we are compelled or enabled to look closely enough at our most strangely exotic neighbors so that our horizons can be expanded, and our consciences can be awakened. Amistad , with its story told with mastery and conviction, and acted with gravity and eloquence, is one of those occasions. It deserves to be seen by everyone.

Rainmaker’ s Earns (11)Its Good Word on the Street

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker , a.k.a. John Grisham’s The Rainmaker, from a screenplay by Mr. Coppola and narration by Michael Herr, based on the novel by John Grisham, has rankled some of Mr. Coppola’s erstwhile admirers from the glory days of The Godfather (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979). How the mighty have fallen, they wail. Think of it: a director of Mr. Coppola’s stature reduced to filming a potboiling author like Mr. Grisham. The shame, the shame! Good guys against bad guys, and the good guys win, but not quite. Much the same objections were raised to Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), which was based on a conventional long-running television series with Robert Stack, hardly adequate material for a cult director pushing the envelope of evil and eroticism.

As it happens, I liked The Untouchables , and I like The Rainmaker , though I think it is a bit much to put Mr. Grisham’s name in the title as if he were the immortal author of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), also directed by Mr. Coppola, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), directed by Kenneth Branagh. The reason Stoker and Shelley were invoked in the titles of their adapted works, I suppose, was to indicate that the movies in question were more faithful to the original books than previous screen versions had been. I suspect a different purpose was at work in the Grisham project. With no major box-office star in the cast and a notoriously “artistic” director at the helm, the studio may have felt that they needed Mr. Grisham’s name in the title as box-office insurance, something that Stoker and Shelley clearly lacked.

Whatever the reasoning, The Rainmaker has proved to be a modest commercial success more, I venture to say, from genuinely warm word-of-mouth than from its cumbersome title. People stop me in the streets to tell me how much they liked it, and I can see why. There is something old-fashioned in the spectacle of Matt Damon’s Rudy Baylor, an idealistic attorney right out of law school, going up against a gang of insurance company lawyers led by Jon Voight’s Leo F. Drummond over a poor leukemia victim’s suit against a rapacious health insurance organization that routinely denied his claim to pay for lifesaving bone-marrow transplants. As with Sidney Lumet’s Critical Care earlier this year, the big screen is making bolder statements against H.M.O. scams than is the supposedly crusading small screen.

Rudy Baylor takes on some of the giant-killing characteristics of James Stewart’s Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), but not all. Mr. Damon chooses not to exhibit Stewart’s heart-rending passion and emotional vulnerability. Mr. Coppola’s penchant for fair-mindedness may have influenced Mr. Damon’s low-key performance.

But any slack that may have been caused by the lead’s underplaying is more than taken up by a 30’s-and-40’s-type wealth of character actors sparked by Rudy’s resourceful mentor, Danny DeVito’s Deck Shifflet; Mary Kay Place’s Dot Black, the heroic mother of the leukemia victim; Teresa Wright’s Miss Birdie, Rudy’s feisty landlady and client; Claire Danes’ Kelly Riker, Rudy’s woman in distress; Virginia Madsen’s mystery witness Jackie Lemancyzk; Mickey Rourke’s almost unrecognizable shyster lawyer Bruiser Stone; and Roy Scheider’s slyly crooked chief executive Wilfred Keeley. With this array of well-cast and well-directed talents, Mr. Coppola has presented us with an old-fashioned character-actor-driven entertainment in the best sense of the supposedly retrograde term (“old-fashioned”). The audience applauded the preordained outcome of the trial, but Mr. Coppola, like Mr. Spielberg with Amistad , took some of the wind out of the audience’s sails with a realistically and truthfully ironic ending.

Murray and Myers: (11)Together on Video

Bill Murray and Mike Myers are two of the most durably funny comedians on the big screen to have emerged from the small screen of Saturday Night Live. I find Mr. Murray warmer and more sympathetic than the multitalented Mr. Myers, but audiences this year seemed to prefer Mr. Myers, in that Jay Roach’s Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery , from a screenplay by Mr. Myers, easily outgrossed the Murray vehicle, Jon Amiel’s The Man Who Knew Too Little , from a screenplay by Robert Farrar and Howard Franklin, based on the novel Watch That Man , by Mr. Farrar. Both movies are now out of theatrical circulation but are wholeheartedly recommended on videotape.

Mr. Murray’s comic persona is as much based on an eternally vigilant skepticism as Mr. Myers’ is based on an eternally tongue-in-cheek credulity. The Man Who Knew Too Little is a cleverly titular sendup, but the movie itself has very little to do with the two Hitchcock classics of 1934 and 1956 with the title The Man Who Knew Too Much. What is being satirized instead is interactive theater and the aspiring mediocrities it ensnares as participants. Austin Powers indulges in bathroom humor, which may explain its success with the kiddies, but its charm lies in its affectionately satiric salute to the London of the swinging 60’s.

Stop Stomping Spielberg! Amistad Floats; The Rainmaker Does, Too