In Sayles' 1900-set 'Amigo,' you'll see wars you recognize
Chris Cooper plays a U.S. colonel who talks about winning the "hearts and minds" of natives caught in a war with the United States in 1900 in John Sayles' film.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Amigo,' with Joel Torre, Chris Cooper. Written and directed by John Sayles. 128 minutes. Rated R for language, some violence. In English, Tagalog and Spanish, with English subtitles. Northwest Film Forum, Southcenter 16.
Chris Cooper and writer-director John Sayles have worked together several times, most notably on the historical drama "Matewan"; the George Bush satire "Silver City"; and Sayles' most acclaimed movie, "Lone Star."
Cooper doesn't have a large role in Sayles' engrossing new picture, "Amigo," but it counts for much. The setting is 1900 in the Philippines, where Cooper's character, Colonel Hardacre, talks about winning the "hearts and minds" of natives caught in a war with the United States.
Alas, he doesn't have a lot of patience with insurrectionists who persist in believing that it's their country. While his soldiers indulge in a degree of fraternization — one of them, played by Dane DeHaan, seems to think he's communicating with a girl who doesn't speak English — Hardacre has no qualms about using waterboarding and other coercive measures to get what he wants.
Yes, waterboarding. Any connection to recent events in Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam is firmly encouraged by Sayles' script, which presents Hardacre as a loose cannon, but the kind of ugly American who is nevertheless echoing his government's wishes.
Hardacre collides most tragically with the villagers' relatively passive "head man," Rafael (Joel Torre), an almost saintly father and husband who tries to avoid confrontation with the occupation. He loses ground when his brother leads a rebel army and Rafael is accused of being a collaborationist.
Sensing that the worst is bound to come, Rafael declares that "God is somewhere else." When the rebels murder Chinese workers, he is horrified, though he can't really claim the moral high ground.
There's always a danger, when history is used to suggest that we're doomed to repeat it, that stereotypes will emerge and be reinforced (the name "Hardacre" is hardly helpful). But Sayles is remarkably evenhanded here. Even the characters who seem extreme at first (most notably a treacherous priest played by Yul Vazquez) are given some shadings.
You could argue that the chief villain of the ambiguously titled "Amigo" is language, which is used quite deliberately to mock and mislead and betray. When the villagers can't rely on the Spaniard priest to translate accurately for them, or the recruits reveal their racism through semiconscious insults, chaos reigns.
While Cooper may be the most familiar face in "Amigo," his bravura performance is matched by Torre, a veteran Filipino actor who gradually becomes the center of the film, and DeHaan, who freshens a familiar comic-relief role. Sayles gives them all opportunities to do something memorable, and they do.
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org
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