John Sayles' Amigo aspires more to educate than entertain, but it's no less engrossing for that. Torn from the pages of history, if not those of his recently published, epic turn-of-the-20th-century novel A Moment in the Sun, the movie harks back to America's first real imperial adventure — the bloody pacification of the Philippines.
Featuring a large Filipino cast and shot by a mainly Filipino crew, Amigo is set in a northern Luzon village occupied by U.S. soldiers and surrounded by guerrilla insurrectos. It's a movie of multiple perspectives and four languages: Spanish, Tagalog, Chinese, and English. The protagonist Rafael (Filipino superstar and the movie's coproducer Joel Torre) is the village leader, caught in the middle and pitted against himself — a self-proclaimed amigo to the Americans and, with his brother and young son camped out in the jungle, an ambiguous "friend of the revolution." Sayles takes care to establish the historical forces at play — feudalism, nationalism, colonialism, religion — but Amigo is in many respects a family quarrel. As the amigo's wife (Rio Locsin) — who, unlike him, is a devout Catholic and thus beholden to his rival, the village padre (Yul Vázquez)— asks, "How can both sides be right?"
Good question. Amigo is a movie in which people have their reasons, and various sides commit atrocities, although this sense of relative values does not necessarily make for subtlety. "The little monkey ran right in here — I seed him!" are the first English words we hear, as U.S. forces pursue a presumed guerrilla into the village. The Americans are mainly cheerful Southern boys weaned on lynchings and grizzled Westerners, veterans of the Apache wars. (The frontier had only just closed when the war began in 1899; Richard Slotkin's Gunfighter Nation convincingly argues that President Theodore Roosevelt and others regarded and promoted the Philippines adventure as the next splendid step in America's Manifest Destiny.)
Sayles' hard-nosed colonel (Chris Cooper) pointedly refers to natives as "Indians" — a far milder racial epithet than is typically employed by the white soldiers in A Moment in the Sun. (Focusing on one of the four black regiments sent to the Philippines, Sayles' novel is more explicit in identifying America's campaign against the Filipino peasantry as a race war.) Already familiar — thanks to left-wing historians like Slotkin, Richard Drinnon, and Howard Zinn — is the notion of America's extended occupation of the Philippines as the template for our Indo-Chinese intervention. Sayles needn't strain to make the point: Vietnam is immediately present in the rice fields and the jungle. There are also obvious parallels to our missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We're supposed to be winning their hearts and minds," a sensitive American lieutenant muses.
The lieutenant is a trained architect and thus crucial to the movie's most utopian moment, as occupiers and occupied join forces to rebuild a house for a tubercular village woman. ("I must've torched a thousand of these things between here and Manila — never thought I'd put one up," Sayles has one gomer say.) The lieutenant also allows Rafael to orchestrate a fiesta at which, believing it to be America's national anthem, the band serenades the soldiers with "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight." However prophetic the sentiment, any such solidarity is not to be tolerated. The next day the colonel rides into town, establishing draconian martial law and applying a form of waterboarding to extract information. (Sayles elaborates on this unsavory historical fact in A Moment in the Sun, which, in addition to a graphic description, has a chapter titled "Water Cure.")
Sayles' politics are impeccable — he's the working-class hero of American movies — but he seldom misses an opportunity to make his point. His filmmaking is highly functional, with nearly every shot designed to deliver a message. Dialogue is similarly blunt: Whatever their language, all the characters are scripted to speak in clichés. In a way, it's part of the project: Like John Don Passos' U.S.A. Trilogy, both A Moment in the Sun and Sayles' movie are predicated on parallel action. Sayles cuts between the village and the guerrillas, with the village priest conducting mass as two comical old crocks square off for a cockfight, or between an American funeral and a Filipino one.
Schematic as it is, Amigo ends with a cascade of intentional historical ironies. The American soldiers are baby killers, if only by default; even the most well-meaning occupier is the clueless prisoner of received ideas here. Ordering an election for village headman, the good soldier explains that "in America, the will of the people is sacred." (Only in America ...) Recognizing this lack of understanding for the men on the ground is crucial to the film's success. Amigo is intelligently rip-roaring, a thoughtful action film, a teachable moment.