Film and TV

Amigo aspires to educate more than entertain

John Sayles's Amigo aspires to educate more than entertain, but it's no less engrossing for that. Torn from the pages of history, if not those of Sayles's recently published, epic turn-of-the-twentieth-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 co-producer 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 everyone has 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 see'd 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.

Sayles's 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. Already familiar 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. 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's politics are impeccable, 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. 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 the 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.

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J. Hoberman
Contact: J. Hoberman