John Sayles is as close to an indie film demigod as the movie industry has got. He’s been a consistent, distinctive and fiercely independent storyteller—from his 1979 writing-directing debut Return of the Secaucus Seven straight through his lengthy string of art-house dramas (Baby It’s You, The Brother From Another Planet, Matewan, Eight Men Out, City of Hope, Passion Fish, Men of War, The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star, Sunshine State). With his latest, Amigo, the quirky-brilliant auteur indulges his love for history by crafting an epic-yet-intimate fictional account of the rarely-if-ever-dramatized Philippine-American War.
The year is 1900. Our story centers around Rafael (terrific Filipino actor Joel Torre), the self-appointed mayor of a tiny Filipino village. The narrative doesn’t spend a lot of time detailing the whys and wherefores of the Philippine-American War. Basically, the U.S. annexed the Philippines from the Spanish in the wake of the Spanish-American War. The Americans claimed to be liberating the locals from the oppressive Spanish, but essentially took over as a colonizer. Our main man Rafael tries to keep locals calm by befriending the American occupiers. (“Amigo” being his insistent self-introduction to the newcomers.) Neither a kiss-ass nor a collaborator, Rafael is a Solomon-like leader who simply wants to keep his friends and neighbors from between the flying bullets of the American army and the Filipino rebels.
Unfortunately, war is never a simple prospect. Rafael’s brother and son have already run off to join the guerilla fighters in the jungle, so his loyalties clearly lie with the insurrection. On the other hand, the leader of the American soldiers unhappily garrisoned in Rafael’s village, one Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt from “Raising Hope”), is a fair-minded man of peace who wants as little trouble as possible. Unfortunately, both the Americanos and the Insurrectos are demanding loyalty or death from the Filipinos. This leaves poor Rafael stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Amigo is not a preachy film, but there are moments when Sayles’ agenda is notably bald-faced. With its tale of occupational forces and terrorist attacks, there are obvious parallels to modern-day Iraq and Afghanistan. Though it’s primarily a subtle, humanistic story, talk of “winning hearts and minds” and images of American military waterboarding detainees for information are much too on-the-nose. Scenes like that render Sayles’ script about the dangers of American imperialism openly dogmatic at times. Even so, the history lesson is worth absorbing. It’s both scary and enlightening to know how many times our country has been down the convoluted path of war, making the same egotistical mistakes in the name of democracy.
The film, shot on location, is filled with lovely-to-behold images of quaint villages, peaceful rice paddies and impenetrable jungles. Though a bit sluggish at 128 minutes, it’s no Thin Red Line. Unfortunately, the film shows off a glossy, flat, shot-on-digital look that seems much less gritty than Sayles’ earlier historic films (Matewan, in particular). The cast, at least, is a colorful one, with DJ Qualls (Road Trip) and Lucas Neff (Dillahunt’s co-star from “Raising Hope”) filling out the ranks of Lt. Compton’s squad, and Chris Cooper (a longtime Sayles favorite) adding drama as the rancorous Col. Hardacre.
Sayles slips up big-time when it comes to the film’s wrap-up. A melodramatic and cliché race against the clock makes the whole thing seem too “movie”-like. A less manipulative capper would have given the film far more lasting impact. In the final tally, Amigo is a film of ups and downs. It’s far from Sayles’ finest hour, but it’s got moments of emotional power and visual flair. Compared to Sayles’ last few, almost microcosmic films (Casa de los Babys, Silver City, Honeydripper), the scope and breadth here is reassuring. It won’t win the filmmaker any new hearts and minds, but it’s enough to ensure his legacy with longtime fans.