A major name in American indie cinema in the 1980s and '90s, writer-director John Sayles has seen his star dim over the past decade via a still-prolific series of increasingly unhip and politically uncompromising — if often awkwardly earnest — features.
Even at Sayles' best, his films struggle with stiffness. His 1979 debut, Return of the Secaucus Seven, sometimes has dialogue that sounds copied from a pamphlet. But it's also a truer portrait of boomer friendship entering adulthood than the later, more celebrated The Big Chill. Matewan, from 1987, is as politically transparent as a folkie protest song but is still arguably the best fictional film ever made about labor history. And Sayles' finest film, 1996's Lone Star, isn't exactly subtle but is still one of American cinema's most crucial investigations of race and community.
Those last two starred Chris Cooper, who returns in Sayles' latest, Amigo, which isn't getting a full theatrical run locally, instead garnering a one-time screening at the Brooks Museum.
Amigo is set in a village in the Philippines in 1900, during the Philippine-American War. It was shot on location with a Filipino crew, features four languages, and tells its story from multiple viewpoints.
Amigo's opening depicts an island village going through its daily routine before it's overtaken and controlled by American soldiers, who — under the order of a passing colonel (Cooper) — attempt to use the village as a garrison. Meanwhile, the village is surrounded by armed insurrectionaries.
Sayles' depiction of this comparatively underexplored conflict in U.S. history feels, like all his films, finely researched, with even the seemingly topical use of "the water cure" by American soldiers on one villager historically accurate. (The use of waterboarding by U.S. troops apparently started in the Philippines and was a scandal at the time.) But he also pointedly situates this first American imperialist (mis)adventure in history, portraying this endeavor as a continuation of Manifest Destiny and a prelude to Vietnam — with notes of hubris and racism animating most scenes.
After one firefight leaves three Americans dead while taking five of the "enemy," Cooper's crusty colonel complains to the soldier he'd put in charge of the village, "We let the monkeys get away with those numbers and they'll never give up." When the lieutenant counters that he has to live with the villagers, the colonel corrects him: "No, lieutenant, you need to make war on these people. Let the bleeding hearts sort out the rest when we're gone."
There's the potential for a terrific film here, but as that scene illustrates, the people onscreen too often feel like constructs designed to impart a political critique rather than full-fledged characters. Like so many of Sayles' most recent films, Amigo is studied, well-meaning, and honorable but too schematic and aesthetically clumsy to fully connect.
Brooks Museum of Art
Thursday, March 8th, 7 p.m.
$8, or $6 for members