“Amigo” – A Review

Written and Directed: John Sayles
Producer: Maggie Renzi
Starring: Chris Cooper, Garrett Dillahunt, Joel Torre
Opening in select cities nationwide: August 19. 2011
Distributed by: Variance Films (http://www3.amigomovie.com/)

There’s a scene early in John Sayles’ outstanding new film, Amigo, the story of the U.S invasion and occupation of the Philippines during the oft-forgotten Philippine-American War (which lasted officially from 1899 to 1902), in which Colonel Hardacre (played with wry detachment and bemusement by a grizzled Chris Cooper) sits astride his horse barking orders at a group of U.S. soldiers.

“…And get these people out of the dirt, for God’s sakes,” Colonel Hardacre orders, “we’re supposed to be winning their hearts and their minds.”

That expression reminds the viewer, of course, of the failed U.S. involvement in Vietnam, as well as any number of U.S. invasions and subsequently disastrous occupations right up to the present quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That may very well be the intention in John Sayles’ latest film project, which brings to light a forgotten chapter of both U.S and Filipino history, as well as the beginning of U.S. Imperialism around the world.

Amigo comes on the heels of the publication of John Sayles’ new novel, the nearly 1,000-page, A Moment In The Sun (McSweeeneys Books). I spent a few hours with John Sayles and his longtime partner/producer Maggie Renzi in Chicago earlier this summer(http://bit.ly/l5h1KN). It was the second-to-last stop of a book tour in which Sayles and Renzi crisscrossed America by automobile, stopping in basically any independent bookstore they could find to promote the novel.

Sayles told me the book, broader in scope than the film, had its genesis in a screenplay, Some Time In The Sun, written five years ago but not considered viable at that time. Both the book and film mark the beginning of American intervention well beyond our own borders. Sayles has long felt the Philippine-American War was a story that had been hidden in the dark recesses of U.S. and Philippine history for far took long and that the time had come to tell at least a part of the story.

In short, it was a tale dying to be told.

When Amigo begins, all appears to be well in the baryo. Rafael (played with understated emotion by Joel Torre) displays his role as the head Amigo of the village, resolving a minor crisis involving a garden that has been torn apart by a pig, which come to think of it is not a bad metaphor to begin with. Soon all hell breaks loose in the baryo as U.S troops, poorly trained and under the supervision of Lieutenant Compton (the versatile and hugely talented Garrett Dillahunt) move in and assert their power. We soon find that Rafael is not only the head Amigo, but he also has a brother, who leads the local band of guerrillas hiding out and determined to fight the Americans. It’s the type of set-up destined to end badly.

In fact, the baryo in which most of Amigo takes place seems to be a microcosm for what is happening all over the Philippines. When the Americans arrive, the Filipinos are forced to release the Spanish village priest from where he is being held captive. Padre Hidalgo (played with outstanding deception and guile by Yul Vazquez) is caught in the crossfire and torn between protecting the baryo and his obligation to his homeland. The Padre quickly becomes the interpreter for the U.S. platoon, surreptitiously editing and changing the translations of the words he interprets. Crafty Padre.

Like all Sayles films, one recognizes immediately the complexity of life in the baryo and that this tale will be told, like all Sayles films, from many different perspectives. Sayles has a knack for being able to convey the complexities of any situation in an understandable way and this film is no exception. He has great respect and expectations for us, the audience to follow what can be a complicated script, but he also knows the tricks by now (this is Sayles’ 17th feature film) to help us along. Sayles’ style is different, indeed, from many other American filmmakers who present the world only in black and white.

Despite attempts by the U.S. troops to assimilate into the baryo they now occupy, these young soldiers are met by persistent resistance from the guerrillas hiding throughout the tropical island. When they’re not cutting down telegraph wires, they’re killing Chinos or “coolies,” (Chinese immigrants to the Philippines who work for the highest bidder) or attacking the poorly-trained U.S. “greenhorns.” This enrages the Colonel who believes that force and might are the only means to victory in the Philippines. He orders the screws to be tightened. Under his direction, the movement of the Filipinos is restricted by guards and barbed wire and slowly the process of starving the enemy into submission and surrender is employed.

Finally, in an attempt to find the whereabouts of the guerrillas, the Amigo is tortured by a process then called “the water cure” (now called “water boarding” and frequently used with the same unsuccessful result against Iraqi and Afghan prisoners). The Amigo nearly drowns, but agrees to lead the U.S. forces to the guerrilla hideout.

But as you may guess, the day-long trek through the flora and fauna of the Philippines is a ruse, and a wild goose chase ensues. Instead of being taken to the guerrillas’ headquarters, the troops are led by the Amigo into the middle of a deadly ambush. Casualties are taken on both sides. A fuming Colonel Goodacre, now at the end of his rope, decides the Amigo must be die by quite another rope: The Amigo must hang or be “stretched,” to use the barbaric parlance of the day.

Sayles’ Amigo ends, much like every U.S. occupation, with little or nothing truly accomplished. I won’t give away the exact circumstances of the film’s conclusion, other than to say that this is a film that will stay with you long after you leave the theater.

It’s little wonder that this ignoble and embarrassing period of U.S. history was covered up and left out of both U.S. and Philippine textbooks, while the heroics of Teddy Roosevelt on San Juan Hill were a part of every school kid’s education. It’s said that the victors are the ones who get to write the history books, and when there are no victors, perhaps it doesn’t get written at all.

However, the real victor is John Sayles and Co. for shedding light on this little-known “moment in the sun.” George Santayana’s quote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” seems very much applicable here, and its certainly never too late for the truth to see the light of day. Amigo is clearly as good a film as John Sayles has ever directed and certainly ranks up there there with the like of Brother From Another Planet, Matewan and Lone Star. Time will tell if Sayles legion of fans and the general American public will agree.

One thing is for certain. In 2001, writer and director John Sayles has been one busy amigo!

(Four out of four stars and highly recommended viewing.)

You can get more info and also request that “Amigo” be shown in your city here: http://www3.amigomovie.com/theaters/. Also visit the Amigo Facebook page here: (https://www.facebook.com/?tid=1088146166261&sk=inbox#!/AmigoTheMovie)

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2 Comments

Filed under Films, History

2 responses to ““Amigo” – A Review

  1. ron hurst

    John,
    A wonderful review. I wish you had a wider audience who would truly enjoy your style and passion.

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