- - Monday, September 5, 2011

Liberal director John Sayles took unapologetic aim at President George W. Bush in his 2004 film “Silver City,” released shortly before that year’s elections. In a recent interview, Mr. Sayles styled himself as something of a fashionably post-partisan middle-of-the-roader.

Has the director mellowed into a no-labels centrist?

Or is he simply practicing message discipline while promoting a film - euphemizing and parsing, dancing and ducking, lest he preemptively alienate the right-of-center half of potential audiences?

Mr. Sayles‘ new film involves an occupying U.S. force trying to win the “hearts and minds” of the locals while using an enhanced interrogation technique for critical information.

But it’s set at the dawn of the 20th century, not in the modern Middle East.

“Amigo,” opening Friday in the District, focuses on the Philippine-American War, which unofficially raged from 1899 to 1902. The film, co-starring Sayles regular Chris Cooper, follows a popular Philippine mayor (Joel Torre) forced to help the U.S. military while protecting his country’s rebels - including his brother and son.

The aforementioned elements may indicate the liberal filmmaker is back on his cinematic soapbox. Mr. Sayles insists the facts have his back.

The director was researching a novel set in Cuba when he learned some surprising facts about the Philippine-American War. He always assumed the phrase “hearts and minds” belonged to the Vietnam War era, but he found the words came out of Teddy Roosevelt’s mouth in 1900.

At that time, U.S. forces used a process then called “water cure,” similar to the waterboarding techniques famously employed during the last Bush administration, to extract information.

Mr. Sayles, the celebrated indie auteur behind “Matewan,” “Eight Men Out” and “Return of the Secaucus 7,” did pause before inserting those sequences into “Amigo.”

“Whenever you’re dealing with an audience that’s as uninformed as you were before your research,” he says with a laugh, “you keep that in mind.”

But he wanted to stay loyal to history

“I always feel like you want to please an audience, but not enough to just lie,” he says. “When you leave certain things out, then it’s a lie.”

Part of the passion behind “Amigo” was to tell a chapter of American history all but ignored both by previous filmmakers and students the world over.

“I had relatives living in the Philippines. They actually had not been taught it [in school], either,” he says. “It’s part of why it interested me.”

The narrative, he says, remains universal.

“The basic story of a guy stuck between a rock and hard place could be in Nazi-occupied territory [during World War II] or in Afghanistan today.”

Mr. Sayles was an independent filmmaker before the label turned cool in the 1990s. He’s dabbled in writer-for-hire assignments along the way (“The Spiderwick Chronicles,” “Mimic”), but most of his energies get funneled into left-of-center stories, from the striking coal miners of “Matewan” to race relations in “Sunshine State.”

The writer-director dismisses the need for a “conservative John Sayles” telling stories on the big screen. “I don’t believe in left wing and right wing,” he says. “Those terms are misleading.”

“The cultural conversation now is so far beyond the economic conversation, so complex,” he says. People on both sides of the ideological aisle want to know when something is done in their names, like a military intervention.

“We deserve to deal with the details,” he says. “And ideologies are a pretty poor way to attack these things. You end up having to be very practical.”

Setting a story in the past limits the temptation to choose ideological sides.

“At most, you’re making an allegory,” he says. “The Philippine-American War was not the Vietnam War. It isn’t Iraq or even Afghanistan.”

Mr. Sayles isn’t sure there are films to be made about a more recent chapter in the country’s foreign-policy adventures - President Obama’s excursion into Libya.

“It’s too soon to tell any pat story,” he says. “We don’t know if this is good war yet, if someone worse than [Moammar] Gadhafi comes along. No one knows.”

“There’s a saying in Texas, ‘He needed killing,’ ” he says, a term that applies to both Gadhafi and former Iraq leader Saddam Hussein. “OK, there may be a pretty long list who you could apply that to, but how many American lives is that worth? What power vacuum does that create?”

With “Amigo,” Mr. Sayles hopes audiences will do their own reading on the 1900-era war and consider conflicts from more than one perspective.

“In most war movies you see from one side. Because you can read the subtitles in ‘Amigo,’ you spend equal time in both camps,” he says.

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