Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and from the looks of the Philippine-American War film “Amigo,” the United States forgot a lot of that conflict. I only wish the director of “Amigo,” the fine filmmaker John Sayles, hadn’t forgotten recent cinematic history and made the choice to favor didactic political statements over human drama like so many of the movies that came out in the first few years of the War in Iraq.
The evidence of our folly in the Philippines, and its obvious similarities to our repeated follies around the globe in the decades since, would have been clear in “Amigo” without cardboard cutout characters like Chris Cooper‘s Colonel Hardacre, a military man who drops none too subtle bits of dialogue about needing to win the “hearts and minds” of the locals or letting the “bleeding hearts figure out” the mess they’ve made of the place at some point down the line. It’s pretty clear from the cartoonishly hawkish characterization of Hardacre that Sayles is one of those bleeding hearts looking to do exactly that. But even audiences who agree with the film’s politics (like, y’know, me) will feel more lectured to than entertained.
That’s a shame, because when the politics get out of the way of the story, there’s a moving one here. Its primary subject is Raphael (Joel Torre) the mayor of the small village occupied by Hardacre’s men, who are lead by the stern but compassionate Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt). His soldiers, an occupying force in a land whose language they can’t speak and whose culture they don’t understand, can’t tell the “amigos” from the “insurrectos” and even take to a crude form of waterboarding to extract information from a prisoner. Raphael is caught between the Americans and those insurrectos, a position complicated by the fact that his brother is the leader of the rebels, and his son has recently left home to join him in the fight. The film has empathy for all parties (except Hardacre): the U.S. soldiers who just want to do their job and get back home, and the rebels who just want their home back so they can get back to their jobs (Raphael’s brother trained to be a priest).
When Sayles focuses on Raphael and the other residents of the town “Amigo” begins to come to life. Torre is a very good actor and he delivers a moving performance as a man desperately fighting for his modest dreams in a no-win situation. Though the film shouts its points so loudly at times, it’s the quietest and simplest moments that resonate most clearly: a shy girl putting on a necklace given to her by a suitor or a man playing Spanish guitar accompanied by the song of a thousand crickets. But one too many Chris Cooper monologues and a weirdly tacky ending that feels like something out a airport novel overpower “Amigo”‘s admirable qualities.
The tragedies that ultimately echo through the lives of these characters as a result of the United States’ actions in the Philippines say all that needs to be said. If only they were all that was said. I have a great deal of respect for Sayles; seeing his movie “Lone Star” in 1996 literally changed the way I looked at film as a teenager. But in this case, in terms that Raphael’s town would surely have understood, he put the cart before the horse. The result, sadly, is a noble but forgettable film.