John Sayles’ newest film, Amigo, inspired in part by the director’s work on a novel, “A Moment in the Sun,” focuses on a vital American incursion overseas that has been all but paved over in our history books — the Philippine-American War, occurring at the cusp of a new century, barely fifty years after the Civil War. Facing Filipino resistance after the latter had cast off the Spanish yoke, Americans dug in and fought hard in a foreign climate against an invader who utilized guerilla tactics. Does this sound familiar? Certainly Sayles (Passion Fish, Lone Star, Honeydripper) was aware of the parallels that can be drawn, and has crafted a film that eludes simple allegory.
Instead, Amigo observes both the inhabitants and the uncomfortable Americans who kick up dust in the village where the film will be largely set. The men garrison themselves in the village, under the eye of Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt), who fancies himself a worldly man and attempts to find common language with Rafael (Filipino superstar Joel Torre), the cabeza of the village, its primary governing force. Rafael happens to have the misfortune of having a brother who’s committed himself to the revolutionary cause. Now, the head of the village must tread softly, taking blows from the impatient and trigger-happy Americans while the revolutionary force nervously discerns whether Rafael is only a prisoner of war or something more dangerous to their cause.
Sayles (who also wrote the script) presents a rich tapestry where cultural norms collide as often as language barriers do. The Filipinos speak Tagalog, the Americans English, the Spanish priest who is freed upon American arrival Spanish and the Chinese laborers brought in for manual labor Chinese. Subtitles abound, and we are put in the unique position of knowing more about the goings on than the characters onscreen — not a novel technique, but one that works well in a film that missteps briefly when it devolves into a third act parable built on bad luck and chance.
In the meantime though, we are allowed to survey the village and meet its residents, people drawn together by their culture and a farming life that is interrupted by the American arrival. The Americans don’t get the short stick in terms of character development — while several are good ole Southern boys, they have an opportunity to show that their charisma as an act, an effort to avert panic and stay calm while guerillas take potshots at the troops. When gruff Col. Hardacre (Sayles’ favorite Chris Cooper) rides into town to deliver a few words about “winning hearts and minds,” it doesn’t seem to be much comfort to the men under his command — Dillahunt’s Compton takes an interest in facilitating a cultural exchange of sorts but when Hardacre cracks down as revolutionary assaults intensify, Compton’s humanity slips away and he carries out orders without question.
In midst of all this is Rafael, an agreeable, intelligent man with a loving wife and a son who strives to be more like his uncle. Rafael is not a saintly figure and isn’t above poking fun at the Americans for not knowing a word of Tagalog — but he’s also a thinker and a diplomat, though under American rule, he can do no more than await the next punishment while arguing with Padre Hidalgo (Yul Vasquez) about how the Spanish priest, recently deposed and now newly free, will translate Rafael’s pleas to the Americans. The priest regards the locals as savages and responds to their concerns, spiritual and otherwise, with indifference — perhaps the most complex character in the film, Hidalgo is embodied by Vasquez with insurmountable pride and little patience, certainly a poor combination in a priest.
The primary fault with Amigo — aside from an occasionally tiresome pace that almost mimics what life must have been like in the little village, moving slowly in wet, occasionally hot weather — is the third act, where Sayles ratchets up the tension and finally pushes the various personalities to make decisions that will permanently effect both soldiers and residents under their command. The drama milked from the moment is slight and that is unfortunate, since Amigo could have used some heft in going out. Instead, we are left with a study in contrasts and an appreciation for minute details of everyday life that define people and set boundaries. For that alone, Amigo deserves a recommendation.