For his 17th feature film, writer/director John Sayles performs one of his periodic 180 degree shifts. Throughout his 33-year directing career, the gifted chronicler of the histories and familial legacies of small-town Americana (in films such as Lone Star and Honeydripper) has occasionally ventured outside that comfort zone.
The Irish-set Secret of Roan Inish and the Spanish language, Latin American-set Men with Guns are among Sayles’s best-reviewed works. In Amigo, his most ambitious film yet, the filmmaker heads to the Philippines, circa 1900, for an old-fashioned yet all-too-resonant portrait of U.S. imperialism run amok.
There’s an aesthetic stiffness to certain elements of Sayles’s picture, which concerns the drama that plays out in a fictional village during the Philippine-American war. The camerawork is stately and largely of the front-and-center medium shot variety, while the limited, spare jungle setting exudes a sort of abstract theatricality.
It’s not always the most vibrant enterprise as it charts the ups-and-(mostly) downs of the American occupation of that village. The cross-cutting between the activities of the soldiers and the Filipino rebels is at times rather heavy-handed, following a pattern that appears to have been determined by Sayles’s desire to give them equal air time, so to speak, rather than the natural flow of the narrative.
Still, the quality of the performances (especially Joel Torre as the put-upon village leader Rafael) and the strength of Sayles’s historical vision win out. The ensemble — which also includes Chris Cooper, Garret Dillahunt and DJ Qualls — brings an impassioned immediacy to the proceedings. Injecting the picture with a welcome dose of liveliness, the actors shape memorable characters despite the occasionally preachy dialogue. Their efforts enhance Sayles’s pointed attempt at emphasizing the intrinsic humanity of the occupiers as well as the occupied.
That’s not to say the movie turns the war-torn setting into a harmonious utopia. Cooper’s firebrand Col. Hardacre (great name!) and Yul Vazquez’s Spanish missionary Padre Hildago are villains. There are violent, tragic deaths, bursts of gunfire and children turned against their parents.
But these are logical bad guys and meaningful conflicts, born out of an untenable situation.
That basic understanding, which informs Sayles’s humanist inclinations, is what makes the film such an effectively timeless portrait. The contrast between the bureaucratic figures that shape foreign policy and the boots on the ground realities half-a-world away is powerfully felt, as Dillahunt and his fellow soldiers agonize over the conflict between their allegiance to orders and their consciences.
Further, turn of the century Philippines is a unique cinematic setting, while the U.S. imperialist overtures of the immediate post-Manifest Destiny period rarely have been dealt with on film. The milieu offers an engaging depiction of American Gilded Age idealism, transplanted across the globe and run into the muck of a proud, practical people who’d thought they’d won independence from colonial rule after defeating their Spanish occupiers.
Sayles spins that world into a polished and altogether affecting tale, even if the movie doesn’t always flow from a visceral cinematic standpoint. In its quiet way, Amigo builds to a devastating portrait of war’s terrible cost.
The Upside: This is a well-crafted, old-fashioned look at a little-remembered period of history.
The Downside: It’s stilted and stiff at times.
On the Side:John Sayles and Chris Cooper have worked together five times. The other films: Matewan, City of Hope, Lone Star and Silver City.