A largely overlooked chapter of U.S. history, and a key one in the nation’s timeline of budding imperialism, the Philippine-American War (1899 - 1902) is a subject ideally suited to indie stalwart John Sayles, who at his best creates indelible cultural snapshots with a keen eye for the relationship between people and their environments and thorny pasts that refuse to remain buried. Sadly, Amigo, the writer-director’s latest film, finds him rather closer to his worst, alternating gracelessly between fleshing out the characters caught in the middle of international conflict and turning them into dots and arrows in a flowchart of historical relevance, in the process flattening a worthy topic into a facile chunk of Yankee-go-home proselytizing. Promising a return to the remarkable form of his 1990s works (Passion Fish, Lone Star, Men with Guns) following the mostly mediocre past decade, it instead finds the auteur stumbling in the direction of Robert Redford’s bloodless lectures (Lions for Lambs, The Conspirator).
Set in 1900, the film outlines the numerous collisions (racial, class, religious, military) unfolding in a rural village in the Philippines as U.S. soldiers move in and a Filipino insurrection simmers in the nearby woods. Village elder Rafael (Joel Torre) is the “amigo” of the title, whose apolitical pursuit of communal peace in the face of occupation is viewed as feeble by his guerilla-leader brother Simon (Ronnie Lazaro). Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt) is positioned as his American counterpart, a sturdy yet conflicted man whose closeted artistic sensitivity (he’s a former architect) adds to his unease toward his mission. Completing the triangle of anguished authority figures is Padre Hidalgo (Yul Vazquez), a self-serving cleric who functions tenuously in this shifting territory as a mediator both linguistically (as the only one who can navigate between English, Tagalog, and Spanish) and politically (as a reminder of the Spanish-American War and its colonial residue).
Always alert to the cyclicality of history, Sayles pointedly evokes America’s military intervention as an extension of the nation’s treatment of its own indigenous people, with cavalry veterans responsible for dispersing Native American tribes joining inexperienced youngsters in foreign soil. He’s too intelligent not to understand that this episode would be later repeated in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan; the problem is that he’s also too blunt to make the point with vivid storytelling, preferring to spell it out with Chris Cooper’s mustache-twirling appearance as an officer who tries out an early waterboarding device on locals and growls, “We are here to win their hearts and minds, for chrissake.” Shot with a visual indifference that reduces its lush Southeast Asian locations to giant sandboxes (quite a contrast to the alive-with-danger jungles of Men with Guns), the inert Amigo frustratingly sacrifices cinematic expressiveness and human nuance in favor of such anachronistic, on-the-nose parallels. When Rafael at one point says that the villagers are “fucked from both ends,” he seems to be speaking not just for the characters torn between acquiescence and resistance, but also for the rebels and soldiers whose story deserves a less clumsy telling.