Before Vietnam or world-wide strife, the United States ushered in the new twentieth century with the Philippine-American War. An oft-forgotten conflict spanning from 1899 to 1902, the Philippines population were fighting against U.S. rule, after the Spanish-American War found the islands in American control. It was a time of confusion and mixed messages, battles that just so happen to draw parallels to today's international concerns -- making it the perfect cinematic landscape for venerable independent filmmaker John Sayles. But this isn't a polarizing and politically critical film in the vein of 'Silver City.' It's a character study that reveals what we see only rarely in big-screen war films -- the real people behind the conflict once the pomp and circumstance are washed away.
'Amigo' focuses on the turmoil one small and fictional Filipino baryo suffered during the American occupation. The village is run by Rafael (Joel Torre), an easygoing but firm man who inherited the post from his father. His world, however, is quickly bubbling out of control. His brother leads the nearby rebel army, his young son wants to join the fight, and then American soldiers march into the town and take command. Touting democratic ideals, Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt) quickly starts to change the small town. The once incarcerated and bitter Spanish priest (Yul Vasquez) becomes interpreter, Rafael is seen as nothing more than a tyrannical "Amigo," and the baryo begins to weaken under foreign rule.
There's a large cultural divide between the baryo's inhabitants and the American occupiers. The soldiers think the Filipinos are just as strange as the locals think they are, as they dig holes for their waste, string up communication towers, and plan democratic elections. Neither group can truly understand the other, and with an interpreter who looks down on the baryo's people as lesser, ignorant citizens, there's an even greater cultural and communicative divide.
Naturally, there are many parallels that can be made between this war now over a century old and modern, overseas turmoil. The soldiers talk about enlisting to fight in Cuba, and then finding themselves on the other side of the world in the Philippines. The occupiers want to modernize a people who are quite happy with their daily lives as they are. These themes could alienate some more patriotic audiences, but Sayles has never been a filmmaker who caters to what makes North American audiences comfortable, whether it be tackling sexuality in 'Lianna,' race in 'Brother From Another Planet,' politics in 'Silver City,' or challenging the rampant distaste for subtitles by using local languages for films set in foreign locales ('Men with Guns').
Where 'Amigo' thrives is in detailing the human condition during war. Sayles likes to slowly unfold his plot, letting his audience not only become acquainted with the character, but feel involved in the world. It requires some patience as the players are introduced and solidified, but it makes it all the more hitting and involving when any of these people -- Filipino, American, Spanish, or Chinese -- struggle. And since Sayles focuses on the character and his or her humanity rather than the adrenaline ride of war, there's an added depth to the cinematic conflict -- neither side is demonized or outright chastised. That isn't to say that the affair is full of warmth and love, but animosity and violence is framed as either an emotional response to get through the ordeal, or one of many bad choices that can be made.
There's really no black and white in war, and that's what Sayles stresses. The rebels aren't just murderous sects out for blood. Rafael's brother was studying to be a minister before he was called to duty. The American soldiers aren't just callous and ignorant -- their comments are as much a coping mechanism in war as they are a reaction to vastly different lifestyles. Similar ignorance is shown within the Filipino people. Compton might have to follow some rather severe orders, as does Col. Hardacre (Chris Cooper), but their struggle between morals and duty are visible in those moments. In fact, outlining a war where Filipino people saw their livelihoods destroyed before they were barricaded in barbed wire enclosures, their homes turned into internment camps, Sayles opts to continue to focus on the humanity of the story rather than the all-too-easy urge to demonize the American troops.
However, though it's a great character study in times of war, this is not Sayles' strongest work. It lacks the clever thematic parallels from 'Planet,' the webbed mysteries of features like 'Lone Star,' or the thematically gripping world of 'Limbo.' Unless a viewer feels a particularly kinship to the themes and material, this isn't the film that grips your heart and never lets go. But that seems more like a conscious choice than a cinematic error. This is meant to be a look at people, not the highs and lows of plot.
Nevertheless, considering some of Sayles' past work, it's easy to hope that the filmmaker can once again capture that ability to truly grip us.