THE CAUSE IS FAMILIAR, THE WAR LESS SO
Movie Review | ‘Amigo’
August 18, 2011, New York Times
By A. O. SCOTT
Although John Sayles’new film, “Amigo,” is set in what seems to be a remote time and place – a hamlet called San Isidro around 1900 in the Philippines, it bridges the gap in a hurry. This is not the kind of movie which the film’s director, John Sayles, lingers in the picturesque past, savoring antique details and restaging bygone conflicts.
History for Sayles triggers recurrent themes of power, greed, exploitation and princi pled, often quixotic, resistance to those for ces. Local circumstances may vary, but the basic dialectic is reassuringly, maddeningly and sometimes inspiringly the same.
Though he has worked on intimate scales such as in “Passion Fish” for example, 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. Like his legendary predecessor John Ford, he sometimes resembles a left-wing baby-boomer, spinning fables of the American character out of the threads of myth, memory and ideology.
Navigating through the fronds of jungle vegetation, the sub-titled Tagalog and affectionately-noted Filipino customs, “Amigo” invites you to contemplate other, more recently contested landscapes of counterinsurgency. With precision that sometimes tips over into didacticism, Sayles outlines connections between the war the United States waged in the Philippines (The Philippine-American War) and later interventions in Vietnam, Central America, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the Philippines, American forces arrived supposedly as liberators (driving out the Spanish) but quickly became an army of occupation. It was neither the first nor the last time that democratic ideals came into conflict with, or perhaps pro vided cover for, imperial ambitions.
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AMIGO, the 17th feature film from Academy Award-nominated writer-director John Sayles, stars legendary Filipino actor Joel Torre as Rafael, a village mayor caught in the murderous crossfire of the Philippine-American War. When U.S. troops occupy his village, Rafael comes under pressure from a tough-as-nails officer (Chris Cooper) to help the Americans in their hunt for Filipino guerilla fighters. But Rafael’s brother (Ronnie Lazaro) is the head of the local guerillas, and considers anyone who cooperates with the Americans to be a traitor. Rafael quickly finds himself forced to make the impossible, potentially deadly decisions faced by ordinary civilians in an occupied country. A powerful drama of friendship, betrayal, romance and heartbreaking violence, AMIGO is a page torn from the untold history of the Philippines, and a mirror of today’s unresolvable conflicts.
TO WIN HEARTS AND MINDS
“We’re here to win hearts and minds,” says Colonel Hardacre (played by 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) sounds a bit anachronistic and overly pointed, but it also reinforces a disconcerting parallel.
Long before the word ‘quagmire’ was ap plied to Vietnam, Mark Twain used it to des cribe 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 Fili pino commonwealth at all conceivable.” That said, it is hard to imagine a clearer statement of the contradictions of nation-building.
Sayles dramatizes those contradictions with wit and concision, and with deter mined 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 Mani chean soapbox tendencies by attending to gray areas and focusing on characters whose essential decency is challenged and complicated by circum stances.
In this regard, Rafael — played with sly, hangdog brilliance by the well-known Fili pino actor Joel Torre – is an exemplary John Sayles protagonist. The hereditary headman 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 new host of headaches.
His brother Simón (played by Ronnie Lazaro) is a leader of the rebel army loyal to Gen. 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 De Haan).
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 “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.
DIABOLICAL COLONIALISTS, INNOCENT VICTIMS
But “Amigo” is not a simplistic parable of diabolical colonialists and their innocent victims. Like their familiar predecessors – the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British, 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 labor ers stringing up telegraph lines.
The murderous, hard-line proclamations of both sides echo each of the antagonists, 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 by Yul Vázquez.
Though Sayles’s 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 freq uently visible and has points to make, but 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 for them.
All in all, Sayles is a pretty good history teacher, the kind who knows how to make even difficult lessons entertaining and relevant.
Opened on Friday in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Written, directed and edited by John Sayles; director of photography, Lee Brio nes-Meily; music by Mason Daring; production design by Rodell Cruz; costumes by Gino Gonzales; produced by Maggie Renzi; released by Variance Films. In English, Tagalog and Spanish, with English subtitles. In Manhattan at the AMC Empire 25, 234 West 42nd Street. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Joel Torre (Rafael), Garret Dillahunt (Lieutenant Compton), Chris Coop er (Colonel Hardacre), DJ Qualls (Zeke Whatley), Rio Locsin (Corazón), Ronnie Lazaro (Simón), Bembol Roco (Policarpio), Yul Vázquez (Padre Hidalgo), Dane DeHaan (Gil), Stephen Taylor (Private Bates), James Parks (Sergeant Runnels), Art Acuña (Locsin) and Pen Medina (Albay).