Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

American troops help an oppressed people to get rid of an unpopular and tyrannical government, but then find themselves in conflict with the rebels over the degree of independence the newly-liberated country should have. Sound familiar?

Without beating the viewer over the head, Sayles’ atmospheric and provocative period drama reminds us that there’s nothing new under the sun; over 100 years ago, the world’s youngest superpower was already finding that it’s easier to invade and conquer a foreign country than to rule it justly and understand all its cultural complexities.

Rather than Iraq or Afghanistan, the setting is the island of Luzon in the Philippines, but the problems are the same. The Spanish have been driven out, to general rejoicing, but the rebel forces, disappointed by the Americans’ refusal to grant immediate independence and autonomy, have turned against their erstwhile liberators. The US army, carrying out its government’s policy of introducing former Spanish colonies to what it sees as the civilising and modernising influence of democracy, begins to spread out across the sprawling island nation. They want to win over hearts and minds – but have plenty of firepower in reserve in case the ungrateful ‘goo-goos’ refuse to listen.

All this seems a long way from the peaceful, pastoral image of the film’s opening scenes. Rafael (Torre), the headman of a small village, is carrying out his duties: overseeing the harvest, mediating in petty local disputes and providing the village’s slender link to central authority by collecting the taxes. The only worry in his life is that his teenage son is chafing to join the ‘insurrectos’ in the jungle, who happen to be led by Rafael’s brother.

But the outside world intrudes in the shape of a column of American soldiers hunting the rebels. Their commander, Colonel Hardacre (Cooper), leaves a unit in the village commanded by Lieutenant Compton (Dillahunt), a young architect who volunteered in the recruitment drive to fight the Spanish in Cuba and now finds himself a long way from home and severely out of his depth.

He tries to keep the villagers onside, despite the fact that applying good American principles of democracy and equality means stripping Rafael of his power and setting him to work in the fields like all the others. He’s aided and abetted by the local priest (Vazquez), a Spanish missionary who sees Rafael’s traditional, tribal authority as a challenge to that of the Church and is keen to see him taken down a peg or two.

Meanwhile, the guerrillas are also leaning on Rafael to pass on information and share the village’s food with them. His son has joined their ranks and Rafael soon finds himself caught between two opposing camps, with jealous fellow villagers keen to undermine his position further. And when rebel attacks increase in the surrounding area, Hardacre is furious with Compton. He accuses the unit of ‘going native’ and demands they crack down hard – starting at the top...

It sometimes seems that John Sayles has been making cracking films since around the early 1900s. Like the work of Gilles Pontecorvo (whose colonial rebellion epics Battle Of Algiers and Queimada share some of Amigo’s DNA) they have an independent sensibility and a personal stamp, yet always boast high production values. They tackle complex issues and aren’t afraid to make political points, but never neglect the cinematic value of a well-told tale and sympathetic but multi-layered characters. He’s had the occasional breakout hit (most notably Lone Star in 1996) and is much in demand as a screenwriter and script doctor (said to be working on Jurassic Park IV as we speak) but to my mind has never had the recognition he deserves.

If there’s any justice, Amigo will change that. Its story may be pertinent to America’s recent history but its themes of divided loyalties, unlikely friendships forged then sundered, and the human cost of even a ‘justified’ war are universal. Like Lone Star and 1987’s Matewan (his best film, about an armed uprising by Virginia coal miners) it’s also a beautifully observed study of a small community remaining united in the face of seismic shifts.

Much of the credit goes to the man himself, as writer and director (and editor). But he’s aided by lush, atmospheric cinematography, Mason Daring’s evocative soundtrack and some truly top-notch performances. Dillahunt, a veteran of classy TV such as Deadwood and The Sarah Connor Chronicles and supporting roles in the likes of No Country For Old Men, brings intelligence and subtlety to what could simply be a clichéd ‘green loot’nant’ role. And Vazquez is a long way from his evil Mexican general in The A-Team as the passive-aggressive, manipulative ‘man of God’.

It’s a tribute to the relatively unknown Filipino actor Torre that he holds his own in such distinguished company, making Rafael an Everyman figure trying to live a good life with principled dignity but finding the violence and compromises of the world undermining all his certainties. And Cooper, a Sayles regular from way back when who’s now in regular demand with the mainstream directors, gives a typically commanding turn as the fearsome Hardacre, a veteran of the Indian wars who’s had the pity and humanity squeezed out of him by a lifetime of conflict.

The frequent references to the United States’ oldest and saddest attempt to impose its worldview on a race who didn’t want it are a reminder that Sayles’ best films have been Westerns in all but name. He shares the understanding of the frontier mentality and the dynamics of all-male groups that John Ford and Howard Hawks had. But he has the questing, probing intelligence of Peckinpah and the storytelling flair of Don Siegel too.

One might argue that the climax (and its bleak coda) are a tad manipulative, and the background details of the conflict are only sketchily outlined. But all cinema is trying to make you feel as well as think, and I’d defy anyone not to feel moved and angry by the end of this film. And the sense of ‘why exactly is all this happening?’ accurately reflects the bewilderment of Compton’s troops; rednecks and poor city boys fired by dreams of glory or straitened circumstance who find themselves in an alien land on a poorly defined and morally suspect mission. If the Western is truly the genre that, at its best, offers the greatest insight into America’s history and culture, then John Sayles can say, like John Ford: “I make Westerns”. And very, very good ones, too.

Reviewed on: 11 Oct 2010
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Set during the American-Philippine war as the head of a bario has to answer to both the Americans and the Filipino patriots, with deadly consequences.

Director: John Sayles

Writer: John Sayles

Starring: Chris Cooper, DJ Qualls, Garret Dillahunt, Yul Vazquez, Lucas Neff, James Parks, Dane DeHaan, Stephen Taylor, Bill Tangradi, Joel Torre, Rio Locsin, Bembol Roco, Irma Adlawan, Ronnie Lazaro, Pen Medina

Year: 2010

Runtime: 124 minutes

Country: US

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