Reviewed by A. O. SCOTT
Although John Sayles’s new film, “Amigo,” is set in what seems to be a remote time and place — a hamlet called San Isidro, in the Philippines, around 1900 — it bridges the gap in a hurry. This is not the kind of movie, and Mr. Sayles is not the type of director, to linger in the picturesque past, savoring antique details and restaging bygone conflicts.
History for him turns on recurrent themes of power, greed, exploitation and principled, often Quixotic, resistance to those forces. Local circumstances may vary, but the basic dialectic is reassuringly, maddeningly and sometimes inspiringly the same. Though he has worked on an intimate scale — in the wonderful “Passion Fish,” for example — Mr. Sayles gravitates, as a writer (of novels and screenplays) and a director (of 17 features since 1979), toward populous pageants that illustrate his historical ideas. He sometimes resembles a left-wing, baby-boom John Ford, spinning fables of the American character out of the threads of myth, memory and ideology.
Through the fronds of jungle vegetation, the subtitled Tagalog and the affectionately noted Filipino customs, “Amigo” invites you to contemplate other, more recently contested landscapes of counterinsurgency. With precision that sometimes tips over into didacticism, Mr. Sayles outlines connections between the war the United States waged in the Philippines and later interventions in Vietnam, Central America, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the Philippines American forces arrived as liberators (driving out the Spanish) and quickly became an army of occupation. It was neither the first nor the last time that democratic ideals came into conflict with, or perhaps provided cover for, imperial ambitions.
“We’re here to win hearts and minds,” says Colonel Hardacre (Chris Cooper) as he rides into San Isidro. His use of a phrase made notorious during Vietnam (and revived, often without irony, in more recent wars) may sound a bit anachronistic and overly pointed, but it also reinforces a disconcerting parallel. Long before the word quagmire was applied to Vietnam, Mark Twain used it to describe America’s Philippines entanglement, which he vigorously opposed. An early statement of American policy declared that “only through American occupation” was “the idea of a free, self-governing and united Filipino commonwealth at all conceivable.” It is hard to imagine a clearer statement of the contradictions of nation building.
Mr. Sayles dramatizes those contradictions with wit and concision, and with determined fair-mindedness as well as outrage. His moral universe certainly has room for obvious heroes and villains, but in his best films he undermines his Manichean soapbox tendencies by attending to gray areas and focusing on characters whose essential decency is challenged and complicated by circumstances.
In this regard, Rafael — played with sly, hangdog brilliance by the well-known Filipino actor Joel Torre — is an exemplary John Sayles protagonist. The hereditary head man of San Isidro, he is a doting father, a loving husband and a figure of reasonable if sometimes exasperated authority. He is also quick to perceive that the arrival of the American soldiers is going to bring him and his subjects a host of new headaches.
His brother Simón (Ronnie Lazaro) is a leader of the rebel army loyal to Emilio Aguinaldo, whose insurrection the Americans are determined to crush. They turn San Isidro into a garrison commanded by Lieutenant Compton (Garret Dillahunt) and patrolled by a gaggle of platoon-movie archetypes, among them a brainy signal corpsman (DJ Qualls), a jovial drunkard (Stephen Taylor), a cynical veteran (James Parks) and a naïve, sweet-faced young recruit (Dane DeHaan).
Some of these men signed up hoping for action in Cuba. Others are seasoned fighters of American Indians, and nearly all of them speak in a casually racist idiom that serves less to demonize them than to pin them to their historical context. The young recruit, who develops a crush on a village girl, tells her that she’s very pretty “for, well, for one of you.” He and his comrades, whether noble, boorish or craven, share an unexamined assumption that the races of the world are stacked in a hierarchy, with whites on top.
But “Amigo” is not a simplistic parable of diabolical colonialists and their innocent victims. The Americans commit atrocities, including water torture and the deliberate destruction of rice paddies and livestock, and so do the rebels, who cut the throats of Chinese laborers stringing up telegraph lines. The murderous, hard-line proclamations of both sides echo each other, but so do the principles for which they claim to fight. And Lieutenant Compton, with his starchy sense of decorum and his sincere desire to do some good, represents an advance over the old colonial order, whose last vestige is an imperious, nasty priest played, rather too stagily, by Yul Vázquez.
Though Mr. Sayles’s eye is on the present, his storytelling methods are sturdy and old-fashioned. “Amigo” is a well-carpentered narrative, fast-moving and emphatic, stepping nimbly from gravity to good humor. The narrative blueprint is frequently visible, but the movie is no more schematic than “The Help” or “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” It has points to make, but Mr. Sayles frequently allows his ideas about how the world works to be overridden (or undermined) by his curiosity about how people behave, and he invites his actors to find their own ways of wearing the tight garments he has designed.
All in all, he is a pretty good history teacher, the kind who knows how to make even difficult lessons entertaining and relevant.
“Amigo” John Sayles 2011