Amistad and Honeymooners offer fascinating time capsules of Americana
By Jim Bray
Steven Spielberg's Amistad and Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners, both of which are newly released on the high definition Blu-ray disc format, may seem like strange bedfellows but they both offer intriguing looks at American culture and society.
They're also interesting peeks into human nature.
Amistad, which was apparently Steven Spielberg's first movie for his DreamWorks SKG studio, is mostly a courtroom drama but it's also a gripping yarn that looks shows humanity at its best, and its worst, as it recounts the true story of a group of Africans found drifting at sea and brought to the US in chains to face trial as escaped slaves.
The focus of the legal case is the fight over whether the group is legally (and of course morally) slaves - and therefore someone's property - or whether they're free people whose rights were violated by the slave traders they killed in the escape attempt that led to them being discovered off the American coast in 1839. As this excellent Spielberg film unfolds, we also learn some particularly disturbing things about how slaves were treated from the time they were captured and during their voyage to the new world, even before they began their "lives" as slaves in the U.S. And it's awful.
There are plenty of bad people here, and they represent some of the worst of the human race. Strangely enough in this politically correct age, they aren't all white male Americans, either. The chain from freedom to chains begins with black Africans capturing other black Africans, turning them over to European sleazes who take them (or at least the ones who survive) to the new world for sale.
Matthew McConaughey stars as the real estate lawyer who attempts to prove the defendants are legally free Africans, not escaped and rebellious slaves from the Caribbean. Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgård are the anti-slavery activists who hire him. Djimon Hounsou, who carries a quiet dignity and strength, turns in a moving performance as Cinque, leader of the Africans at the center of the controversy, while Anthony Hopkins pops up in what's actually little more than a major cameo as former president John Quincy Adams, who at first refuses to get involved but eventually argues the plaintiffs' case before the U.S. Supreme Court. He isn't in the movie much, but his presence is felt and his performance is typically great.
According to the "making of" documentary that accompanies the film, Amistad was brought to Spielberg by co-producer Debbie Allen after she saw "Schindler's List." Besides Hounsou, they cast as many African actors as they could, to add to the historical accuracy, which makes one wonder why Sir Anthony is there, playing an American! Not that he isn't great and, to be fair, when this came out it seemed like there was a law saying Hopkins had to appear in every Hollywood movie.
Amistad is an excellent film, with a compelling story and excellent performances all around - and the scenes spread over the film's running time that depict the slaves' treatment during their capture and their Atlantic crossing will remain etched in my mind as long as I live.
While most of the film is a relatively straightforward courtroom drama, it also features some interesting aspects of the story including the Americans' attempts at communicating with, and therefore understanding, the Africans. And of course what began as a relatively straightforward property case morphed into an important battle between those who believe that people can be property and those who believe that humanity is inherently free - and it's all positioned against a young America that was founded on the latter proposition but was still plagued at least in part by the advocates of the former.
The Blu-ray looks and sounds great. The widescreen (1.85:1) 1080/24p picture is sharp and colorful and offers good depth. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is just as good as well. You don't get a lot of extras, just the aforementioned "making of" documentary (which is pretty good) and the theatrical trailer in HD.
There was a time when I rather unkindly considered Steven Spielberg to be the Ronald McDonald of filmmaking - by which I meant superficial and lightweight - thanks to earlier efforts such as 1941 (which now that we've both matured I must revisit) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which I loved when it came out but which hasn't aged well) - but Amistad is another example of what a great filmmaker he grew to be. He can also play his audience like a violin, and I found myself drawn into the tale and very moved - at times, to tears. Bravo, Mr. Spielberg!
Paramount has also released what's known popularly as "the classic 39" episodes of Jackie "The Great One" (before Mark Levin came along, anyway) Gleason's The Honeymooners, an often hilarious look at ordinary Americans who work for a living but who try to better themselves and their families rather than expecting everyone else to be brought down to their level.
As anyone who hasn't lived under a rock for the past half century knows, The Honeymooners stars Gleason as New York City bus driver Ralph Kramden, the corpulent foil to his lovely wife of 15 years, Alice (Audrey Meadows in this version). Ralph is always looking for ways to get rich and they always blow up in his and his best friend Ed Norton's (Art Carney) faces, much to Alice' chagrin (but not to her surprise).
It's great to have all of these classic episodes on hand together. Not only was The Honeymooners funny and popular, it spawned a lot of imitators including, apparently, the Flintstones. And while there are plenty of yuks, there's also some serious medicine under the spoonsful of sugar - including such things as brief discussions of lifestyle issues. For example, in the first show, Ralph and Ed are scheming to get new TV's (Ed has one already but Ralph doesn't) and decide to share one between them (and guess how well that goes!). Ed can't afford a new TV because he's run out of his various credit opportunities, while Ralph can't afford one because he pays cash. So they pool their resources.
Alice, and to a lesser extent Trixie Norton (Joyce Randolf), are the voices of sanity and reason here and Alice is generally not only in the right but is vindicated by episodes' end. That doesn't sit well with the blustery "I got a biiiiig mouuuth" Ralph, who famously threatens to punch Alice in the kisser or send her to the moon for having the audacity of seeing through his bluster and his schemes - and for being right. But no matter how threatening Ralph gets, we all know he's just a paper tiger and that by the time the episode wraps, he'll as often as not take his dear wife into his arms and tell her "baby, you're the greatest."
Gleason became a legend for a reason, and it's on display clearly here. But the show wouldn't be as good without Carney and his great body English, and Meadows' stoic anchor to reality for Ralph - kind of like how the late John Entwistle's quiet thunder kept The Who from taking off from the stage and flying away musically. Together, the ensemble - abetted by their unfortunately uncredited guest players and great writers - created a whole that's better than its individual parts.
The Blu-ray makes these shows look better than I've ever seen them, though of course it's relative and the series' age and black and white TV origin work against it. It's still better than what's on TV, though. Ditto for the audio, which is in monaural sound and unremarkable. But so what?
I can't believe that, as an audio and videophile, I wrote that- but in this case it's true.
You even get some terrific extras spread across the five discs, from a couple of unremarkable promos to a "Best Buick Yet" dealer presentation, a CBC 60 Minutes profile of Gleason that not only gives great insight into the Great One, but which also shows Morley Safer was not nearly as smart or professional as he thought he was. There's an even longer set of outtakes from this broadcast that fleshes out Gleason better, and footage from the 60 Minutes segment also pops up on the 35th and 50th anniversary specials that are included on the final disc. There's even a bit from the show "Person to Person" in which Gleason replaces Edward R. Murrow and interviews a real life Ralph Kramden and his family.
All in all, it's great stuff!
You've probably seen many of these episodes before; I'd been watching them on Sunday nights on some New York TV station, but now that the Blu-ray set is here I'll be avoiding those broadcasts completely. Not only does the Blu-ray not inflict conventional commercials on you (except for some vintage stuff) it also lets you avoid those annoying and increasingly popular (to TV networks/stations) promos and commercials they inflict right on top of the show itself.
And networks wonder why they're losing viewers! Here's one potential reason: they're treating us like mindless wallets just ripe for exploiting in any way they can. I don't mind commercials if they let me watch the programming for free, but the content providers are adding more and more commercials. Heck, episode one of the half hour Honeymooners runs 29 minutes (though they aren't all that long), as compared with the 20 or so you get now; add those "over the top" promos and commercials and you have pretty much the straw that breaks this particular camel's back. Bye, bye broadcast - hello Blu-ray!
So if you want to see The Honeymooners as it was meant to be, you can't go wrong with this Blu-ray set. And while you're picking it up, give Amistad a good look. It's very different, but very good and very important.
Copyright 2014 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.