Filmmaker John Sayles specializes in exploring the human relationships that underlie social and political issues, and in Amigo he takes on the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War, a subject that allows for both parallels to current American foreign policy and an examination of an underrepresented period in U.S. history. That description makes the movie sound sort of dry, and it certainly can be at times, especially since Sayles makes an effort to be subdued and even-handed in his portrayals of the American military, the Filipino guerrilla revolutionaries and the average people who were caught between them. Sayles focuses on one village, where local leader Rafael (Joel Torre) is torn between the invading Americans and the revolutionaries hiding in the surrounding jungle.
Although the American commander (Garrett Dillahunt) left behind to oversee the village is compassionate and open-minded, the same can’t always be said for the young soldiers in his charge, and the rebel army doesn’t bother distinguishing between well-meaning Americans and more brutal conquerors. The movie eventually becomes a tragedy as Rafael is forced to make impossible choices with no potential positive outcomes, and the ending’s dramatic irony reveals the heavy hand that Sayles has been holding back. Before that, Amigo is quiet and slow, a war drama in which the war has mostly passed the main characters by. Sometimes that provides for unexpected insight, but too often it seems the movie, like the American soldiers, is just marking time until something significant comes along to give it purpose.