A detour along the moral path
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Sep 02, 2011
"Amigo" might be the talkiest war movie ever made.
Although set in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, during the Philippine-American War, writer-director John Sayles's latest film tries way too hard to make a point. Not about the military conflict that provides its ostensible setting, but about more recent wars.
You can't exactly miss the point. Early in the slow-moving, unevenly acted, two-hour-plus film, an American Army officer played by Chris Cooper turns to one of his subordinates - a lieutenant charged with keeping a bunch of disgruntled villagers in line while U.S. troops try to suppress a guerrilla uprising all around them - and says, "We're supposed to be winning their hearts and minds."
That anachronistic Vietnam-era reference (which comes from a 1965 speech by Lyndon Johnson) is only the first sign that Sayles doesn't really care all that much about the Philippines, or about the Filipinos who are at the center of his story. The drama, to the extent that there is any, comes from the fraught dynamic between two Filipino brothers. Rafael (Joel Torre) is a civilian village leader who grudgingly accommodates the American soldiers garrisoned in his rural community - he's the "amigo" of the title - and Simon (Ronnie Lazaro) is the anti-American commander of a nearby insurrectionist cell. Rafael's untenable position - Simon suspects him of collaborating with the enemy, and the Americans suspect him of spying for the rebels - is the film's only source of tension.
And yet nothing much comes of it, for three quarters of the film.
Until then, there's plenty of time jawboning. The lieutenant (Garrett Dillahunt of "Raising Hope") chews the fat with his men while waiting for something to happen. His men chew the fat with each other and, in the case of one of them (a forgettable Dane DeHaan), with a pretty native girl who doesn't understand a word he says. A Spanish priest (Yul Vazquez) sticks around to translate, occasionally, from English to Tagalog, and vice versa, but mostly to remind us, with a finger-wagging smugness, that the movie has, you know, a larger point.
"I must warn you," Padre Hidalgo tells the lieutenant, "that the moral path is not always the most obvious."
Lest you think "Amigo" is just about Vietnam, though, Sayles makes it abundantly clear that he has bigger - or at least more current - fish to fry. American involvement in other military and moral quagmires, where it's difficult to tell friend from foe - Afghanistan, Iraq, heck, even the "War on Terror" - is the film's true subject. There's even a scene in which the Americans subject Rafael to a form of torture known as the water cure, in which a subject is forced to ingest copious amounts of liquid to avoid drowning. If it sounds suspiciously similar to what you've read about waterboarding, that's no accident.
While that scene is not an anachronism - the U.S. military really did use such "enhanced interrogation techniques" in the Philippines - it feels, from a cinematic standpoint, clumsy and unnecessary.
There's nothing wrong with a story that has a powerful moral. That's why we tell stories. But the argument in "Amigo" is so heavy-handed - and its execution so crude - that by the time the movie winds its way to a predictable but uninvolving conclusion, nobody will be listening anymore.
Contains violence, obscenity and racist dialogue. In Tagalog, Spanish, Chinese, Latin and English with subtitles.