I love the idea — I mean the platonic ideal — of John Sayles. For more than 30 years he has been the pinup boy of American independent cinema: the workshirt sleeves rolled up to reveal a logger’s arms, the sleepy eyes and sullen mouth that make him look like the Robert Mitchum of progressive, penny-pinching auteurs. An acclaimed novelist (Union Dues) before he ever touched a camera, Sayles burst onto the film scene in 1980, when he wrote and directed the acclaimed social comedy Return of the Secaucus 7 as well as scripting the smart horror film Alligatorfor Roger Corman. Either of those achievements could have earned him the MacArthur “genius” fellowship he was awarded in 1983. And because he edited his early films on the kitchen table of his Hoboken, N.J., home, he quickly became the saint of handmade movies.
A one-man regional-film movement, Sayles has shot his stories in West Virginia (Matewan), Texas (Lone Star), Florida (Sunshine State), Colorado (Silver City) and Alabama (Honeydripper) — not just because of state incentives but because his stories are so strongly linked to their locations. He must believe that each state is its own country, has its own spirit, and he their wandering critic and troubadour. Historian, too: his novels and films have dealt with radicals in the 1960s, Appalachian coal miners in 1920, Cuban exiles in 1980s Miami. He has written scripts on the Rosenbergs, Alexander Litvinenko and the Tasmanian penal colony in 1820. Now Sayles addresses, in miniature, the gigantic issue of American imperialism. Amigo compresses the U.S. colonizing of the Philippines, after its 1898 liberation from Spanish rule, into the tale of a few occupying soldiers in a village whose people may be sympathetic to the rebels in the jungle nearby.
That’s a plangent premise. But be warned: there is the Sayles the inspirational icon and Sayles the less-than-thrilling director. His films, especially over the past decade or so, tend to be more beguiling in their pitches than they play on screen. Seizing grand themes, teeming with incident, fat with dozens of characters representing different political stances, his pictures are often staid and static; they represent good intentions unfulfilled, great opportunities squandered. Alas — when expressing qualms about an ambitious indie film, critics are contractually obliged to say Alas — Amigois one of those lost chances. Sayles is like a traveler with a voracious appetite for exotic places, and when he returns with accounts of his exploits, his listeners go numb and nod off.
A half-dozen or so U.S. troops have entered the village of San Ysidro. Gruff Col. Hardacre (Chris Cooper, a veteran of five Sayles films) has ordered Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt, who plays the feckless Burt on Raising Hope) and his men to pacify the natives and guard against insurgents in the hills. The local chief, Rafael (Joel Torre), knows the rebels well: his brother Simon (Ronnie Lazaro) is the leader, and his teenage son has run off to join the revolution. Torn between his support for the rebels and his desire to keep the village from being destroyed by one factor or the other, Rafael also must parry the smooth subversion of a Spanish priest, Padre Hidalgo (Yul Vasquez), who, as the only man around who speaks both Tagalog and English, functions as an unreliable translator between Rafael and Compton.
So here is America’s first significant occupation of a foreign country — its prototype Big Muddy — with its fatal echoes in Vietnam and Iraq. This political metaphor gazes up at Sayles like an orphan puppy he can’t resist petting to death. In case any viewers are too literal-minded to see the connections, Col. Hardacre spells them out. “Get these people up out of the dirt, for God’s sake,” he shouts at Compton. “We’re supposed to be winnin’ their hearts and minds.” But later, when Compton says that he’s treating the villagers decently because “I have to live with these people,” Hardacre explodes: “No, Lieutenant. You gotta make war on these people! You let the bleedin’ hearts sort out the rest when we’re gone.” Later, the Colonel waterboards a suspect, telling the priest, “That’s not torture, Padre.” As the war goes against the rebels, Compton muses, “They can’t beat us. I don’t know why they even bother.” And his signalman Zeke (DJ Qualls) quietly replies, “It’s their country, Sir.” Are we now all on the same page of the Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy?
“Another film designed to stur Anti-American hate,” blogged IMDb’s jholm55, without bothering to see Amigo or hit spell-check. “This film and its creators will be responsable for more American deaths. … This film exploits old history and current lives to make a buck, Shame on you.” In fact, Sayles is an equal-opportunity caricaturist: he shows all the parties, except for the poor villagers, to be guilty of racial stereotyping. The U.S. soldiers call the villagers “gooks,’”dagos,” “monkeys,” “a stunted race”; the rebel leader thinks that the occupiers are “not really human”; the Chinese laborers, doing coolie work for the imperialists, refer to the Americans as “white ghosts.” All sides are locked inside their prejudices, with little interest in breaking out. When Zeke tries to explain the principles of telegraphy, one soldier snaps, “I said I don’t understand, not that I wannaunderstand.” No haven is as secure and comforting as the cocoon of ignorance.
Sayles’ fondness for narrative clichés works for him in the more intimates moments. Angel-faced soldier Gil (Dane DeHaan, a revelation as Jesse on the last season of In Treatment and an Obie winner for The Aliens) conquers his fears of Otherness by falling for a village girl in a couple of tender scenes. Occasionally Sayles applies a light satiric touch, as when the village band regales the Americans with a brassy rendition of “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” — because they think it is the occupiers’ national anthem. (That old tune was indeed used as a marching song for the troops in the Philippines.) And when the triangular animosities of Americans, rebels and villagers seethe toward explosion, the movie achieves a suspense within its larger, darker inevitability.
The problem is that this pot of intrigue takes ages to boil, and the cook refuses to turn up the heat. And if vitality is not an element Sayles cherishes, neither is nuance. The U.S. soldiers might be depicted as exiled teenagers half-a-world from home, without a cause or a clue; but Sayles lets too many of them be defined as simple-minded racists. The villagers, though, are without exception swathed in noble attitudes and warm light (excellent work by cinematographer Lee Briones-Melly), their plight underlined by the keening of a solo cello. About an hour into the film, one Madonna-faced woman walks out of her hut cradling a dead child. She waits a beat and then starts wailing. It should be heart-tearing, but as played and filmed it seems like an audition for some reality show that trades in agony.
Sayles so frequently frustrates the best instincts of serious moviegoers. But, in good films and failed ones, he does stir — or “stur” — those impulses. He should keep making these movies; he should just make them better, by investing in his directorial craft the passion he puts into his themes. Indie cinema needs John Sayles, not only as an icon but as a vital, frame-by-frame artist. Already, he has made a social statement with his career; His films, made far from Hollywood’s influence or even interest, are his own wars of independence.