Directed By: John Sayles
Written By: John Sayles
Cast: Garret Dillahunt, Joel Torres, Yul Vazquez, Chris Cooper, D.J. Qualls, Jemi Paretas
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 8/8/11
Opens: August 19, 2011
The press notes for “Amigo” state that the film is “a page torn from the untold history of the Philippines.” Hey, where does one find a page to tear if the history is untold? In fact, “untold” is hardly the case. Even in high school, textbooks deal with “The Aguinaldo Insurrection” as a result of America’s first attempt at a world-wide empire, an imperialistic thrust that launched a vigorous opposition from the likes of Mark Twain and the Anti-Imperialistic League. Extensive coverage of the period dealt with in this film is easily available from Wikipedia at here Take a look!
There is little doubt that John Sayles is using the war between the Filipinos and the Americans to punctuate current U.S. global policy, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, though his concentration in just one village with a handful of American soldiers on display makes one think that the action was small potatoes. In fact the Americans set up concentration camps around the country theoretically to separate the civilian population from the guerrilla fighters, but hundreds, probably thousands died in the camps from dysentery.
John Sayles, whose 17-feature-film resume has included his best known “The Brother From Another Planet,” hones in on a village far from Manila to serve as a microcosmic look at the war 1899-1902. The battle-weary Americans under the leadership of handsome Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt), are advised by their commanding officer that their mission is to win the hearts and minds of the people. (Sound familiar?) The folks living in the baryo, Tagalog language for “village,” seem to be amigos with the Yanks, particularly the head man, Rafael (Joel Torre). Both the lieutenant and the mayor communicate through Padre Hidalgo (Yule Vazquez), a Spaniard who speaks fluent English, Spanish and Tagalog and probably regrets Spain’s loss of the Philippine Islands. Rafael is in a bind because his own brother, Simon (Ronnie Lazaro) and his son have joined the guerrilla movement. While locals giving aid and comfort to guerrillas could be executed by the Americans, Simon has decreed that anyone collaborating with the invading Yanks would suffer the same fate.
The greater part of the film does not deal with battles, so if you’re looking for “Saving Private Ryan” or “The Longest Day,” you went to the wrong screening room. Instead, Sayles treats us to an exploration of character. The lieutenant stands in for decency and for winning hearts and minds through friendliness and promises of liberation. (His technique is mirrored in Matthew Alexander and John Bruning’s 2008 book, “How to Break a Terrorist,” which favors amity rather than torture to get information in Iraq.) Ideologically, the lieutenant is opposed by his commanding officer, Col. Hardacre (Chris Cooper), who in one scene tortures the village head through a primitive kind of waterboarding, a technique that fails because the victim, though commanded to lead the Americans to the guerrilla leader, will only appear to comply. Again: a sign from director Sayles about the absurdity of torture, Dick Cheney’s philosophy notwithstanding.
Sayles too frequently edits back and forth, from the battlefield to the village, from a budding romance between a blue-eyed soldier and a pretty local woman to a bull session among the Yankees—many of whom appear stupider than the characters out of the “Jackass” movie series. Sayles succeeds in uncovering parallels, in proving that history repeats itself. Notwithstanding George Santayana’s quote “Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it,” our leaders who got us into Iraq and Afghanistan must have known enough history to be aware of the dangers of foreign intervention.
In the end, one wonders why the U.S. was so intent on annexing the Philippine Islands. There’s no oil there, the people were effectively liberated from Spanish rule, and yet we held on to that distant Asian nations until 1946 when the country was granted independence “as a reward” for fighting the Japanese.
The picture is in Tagalog, Spanish and English with English subtitles.
Rated R. 128 minutes. (c) 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B