Amigo ought to be a great film: the subject is fascinating and still resonates today, even though it takes place over a hundred years ago. The Philippine-American war has been pretty much ignored, by textbook authors as well as moviemakers (but for the 1937 Hollywood movie The Real Glory). As a result, writer-director John Sayles has a lot of information to get across in order for us to get the lay of the land, and understand the central characters and their conflicts.
The setting is the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, with naïve American soldiers (many of whom have never—
—left home before, or had a civilized encounter with someone who isn’t white) forced to invade and “conquer” peaceful villages, while a rebel army plots against them in the dark of the jungle. The title character is the mayor of one such village whose own sibling is a rebel leader. He refuses to betray his brother, but also feels he must appease the American invaders for the sake of the community. It’s a no-win situation.
Filmed in the Philippines, with a local crew and a native superstar (Joel Torre) in the leading role, Amigo tries to present all points of view, as Sayles usually does. But there is a self-conscious sense of “history lesson” hanging over the picture that doesn’t accrue to its benefit. Great moments are offset by heavy-handed ones. There may have been officers as racist and bull-headed as the one played by Chris Cooper, but that doesn’t change the fact that his character comes off as a living cliché.
Garret Dillahunt fares better as the American lieutenant who tries to keep an open mind while winning “the hearts and minds” of the villagers. And the always-interesting D.J. Qualls brings welcome color to his portrayal of a communications specialist.
I have enormous respect for John Sayles, and look forward to reading his new novel, but Amigo is not one of his stronger films. He has allowed his agenda to overtake his normally astute sense of storytelling.