You don't need to be a history buff or possess a political-science degree to glean what writer-director John Sayles is up to with this flashback to an imperialist misadventure. (Though as is often the case with this intimidatingly intelligent leftist's works, it doesn't hurt if you can check yes for both.) Returning to a forgotten moment of U.S. foreign policy---securing the Philippines' independence in 1900---Sayles sprinkles a cast of characters across a customarily large canvas, centering on a township diplomat nicknamed Amigo (Torre). It's the contemporary parallels, however, that are the real focus: American military brass crowing about occupation protocol; teen foot soldiers totally ignorant of foreign culture; guerrilla insurgents undermining, to quote Chris Cooper's gung ho roughrider, the "winning of hearts and minds." Any of this sound familiar?
Of course it does, though that won't stop Sayles from hammering home comparisons via the dramatic equivalent of bold 24-size font. Few filmmakers are ambitious enough these days to try addressing our present world-policing endeavors through the prism of past ones, so it almost seems churlish to take Sayles to task for relying on overly dogmatic storytelling. (Especially given his facility with performers; it's high time people recognized character actor Garret Dillahunt as an American treasure.) But Amigo's penchant for polemics keeps upsetting any semblance of balance; how can anyone hear the grace notes when the soapboxing is so deafening?
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