I am a history buff, or so I like to think. But honestly I either never learned or simply forgot that the U.S. went to war with the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, from 1899 to 1902 U.S. troops invaded the small island nation to maintain control over it following it being handed over to the U.S. following the Spanish-American War. And while the Philippines are strategically located in the Pacific, the war was criticized in America by anti-imperialists including the likes of William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie and notably, Mark Twain.
It’s not a war that gets much attention in mainstream cinema, especially given the plethora of World War II and Vietnam War films that have come out of Hollywood. Recently, we’ve even seen a slew of films about the Gulf War and our conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan.
Director John Sayles has a history of highlighting the underdog, whether its organized labor fighting for rights in West Virginia coal country in 1987’s intense film Matewan, or local residents fighting the government in 1991’s City of Hope. Sayles also has a fondness for history, most notably with his 1988 retelling of the Black Sox scandal in Eight Men Out.
One thing you can also count on with a John Sayles film is that he’ll always give you interesting characters and complex stories. I’ve been a dedicated Sayles fan for decades and have seen most of the films he’s directed, including favorites such as the aforementioned Matewan, City of Hope and Eight Men Out, along with Passion Fish, Lone Star, The Brother from Another Planet, and The Secret of Roan Inish. My personal favorite is the 1983 coming of age story Baby, It’s You starring a 24-year-old movie newcomer named Rosanna Arquette. His filmography is tremendous and for an independent filmmaker he’s managed to cast so many great actors who have gone on to stardom — he pretty much discovered actors like Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, and Mary McDonnell to name a few who have each starred in multiple John Sayles films and gone on to award-winning Hollywood careers. It’s enough to make you forget he also wrote the screenplays for Piranha, Alligator and The Howling.
Amigo certainly fits the John Sayles bill. It tells the fictional story of a small village in the Philippine jungle that has been taken over by American troops and used as a base to take on nationalist guerrillas. Things quickly get turned upside down for the villagers, who while are not harboring nationalists are in multiple cases related to guerrillas hiding nearby who are determined to fight to take back their country from the Americans.
The film stars Filipino actor Joel Torre as Rafael, the village mayor who’s brother leads the nearby guerrillas and who’s son has run off to join them. Rafael is stuck between trying to appease the American soldiers while at the same time not turning in his brother and son. We never truly know where Rafael’s allegiance lays, but he’s certainly in a tough spot. It doesn’t help that at the same time his fellow villagers seem unsure of his ability to lead the village. It’s worth noting that Sayles chose to present the film in Filipino with English subtitles except for when the Americans speak. This serves to both create a realistic experience for the viewer and at the same time ensure a level of confusion among the American troops and native villagers that adds to the tension. In recent years Sayles has made several films using subtitles versus Americanizing the characters and this adds to the realism of his films and provides unique opportunities for native-speaking actors.
The American troops are led by Colonel Hardacre, a hard-ass soldier with no soft spot for the Filipino villagers. Played by the underappreciated Chris Cooper, Hardacre clearly doesn’t want to be in the jungles of the Philippines and is perfectly comfortable treating the natives like subhumans. Cooper is a regular in Sayles’ films, perhaps most memorably as the sheriff in 1996’s Lone Star. He’s one of those actors that seems to show up everywhere and is amazing in each role (see Conklin in the Bourne films and as the sexually-confused Marine living next door to Kevin Spacey’s iconic Lester Burnham in American Beauty). Cooper does have an Oscar, which he won for Best Supporting Actor in Spike Jones’ 2002 film Adaptation.
The tension in the film comes as the American troops try to hold the village while at the same times the guerrillas try to disrupt their activities and ensure village leader Rafael doesn’t spill the beans on his brother’s activities in the jungle. The American troops are a bunch of rag-tag kids with little wartime experience and their anxieties play out as the situation gets complicated.
Ultimately the film is heartbreaking, and while it is a fictional story the viewer gets the feeling in real life it very well could have played out exactly as it does in the film. I found the story compelling and intense, and as the story progressed I could feel the anxiety mounting and I was on the edge of my seat. I highly recommend it for the story and the acting, as well as for the history lesson.
It’s also worth noting that Sayles makes no profound statement about the war or America’s imperialistic nature, rather he leaves that for the viewer. Sayles makes films about tough subjects and doesn’t preach (unlike, say, Oliver Stone) but instead provides a realistic view of the situation and leaves the viewer to make his or her own decisions about the politics. Yes, I think Sayles chooses subjects like this war specifically because they are not among the best moments of our history, and for me that’s what makes it good art.
Lastly, I should mention that once again Sayles cast a few young actors that since the time of this film have gone on to bigger things. One of the young American soldiers is played by a 24-year-old Dane DeHaan who is a tremendous actor who most recently is well known for his portrayal of the Green Goblin/Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man films (with Chris Cooper as his father). The other young up-and-comer is D.J. Qualls, who I love as the loyal Ed McCarthy in Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Both DeHaan and Qualls have even more bright roles ahead.
I give Amigo an 8 out of 10 stars.
Next on my IMDB Watchlist: Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (2011)