Is John Sayles capable of making a bad movie? In all his films (and books, don’t forget that he writes books too!) he echoes the words of Terence, I am a human being; nothing human can be alien to me. It is this ability to imagine the lives of people from different places, with different philosophies, of varying status and cultural influence that enriches his work and makes each character, no matter how seemingly insignificant, of interest and import to the viewer.
A few nights ago I watched his last movie to date, Amigo. It is set in an obscure village in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War, fought in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about American military activity in Asia preceding World War II. Sure, I knew about the Spanish-American War — Cuba and Remember the Maine and Hearst’s go-go cheerleading. But the invasion of the Philippines immediately afterward? Not so much.
The Philippines, having gained independence from Spain, naturally enough wanted to form their own government. The US, however, had different ideas. The resulting invasion had many repercussions, most of which not directly alluded to in Sayles’ movie. What we see are the effects on the people of a single village of this American presence, the effects of these people on the invaders (most of them mere boys, bewildered in a foreign land), and the difficult, practically impossible choices forced on all of these human beings by the terrible situation they find themselves in.
Sayles makes a few pointed references to the later failed attempts of the US at imperialistic conquest, but we already understand. It doesn’t work, it cannot work, and it hurts every human soul involved in it on both sides.
Amigo is totally involving, suspenseful, with touches of humor and love and courage. It is thought-provoking, but it’s not preachy. Because it is portraying real human beings in a believable situation, it is never reduced to the mere propaganda of signs and symbols.
So more power to you, John Sayles. You have figured out a way to make truly independent films in a relentlessly corporatized environment.
The Man Upstairs (that is, Orson Welles) is smiling down at you as we speak. You discovered the path he spent his whole life seeking.
POSTSCRIPT: I see that Sayle’s novel, A Moment in the Sun, was just released in its paperback edition on February 28. Set during the same time period as Amigo, its scope is vast, spanning world events as seen through many different characters. I haven’t read it yet but I can hardly wait to get my hands on it! I urge you, too, to grab a copy from your local independent bookstore (if you’re still lucky enough to have one!).