John Sayles’ career is a maddeningly prismatic thing. So varied is the ambidextrous writer-director’s list of accomplishments that James Franco, following an ill-advised perusal of Sayles’ Wikipedia page, resolved to take up mixed martial arts in order to maintain his lead as Hollywood’s premiere dabbler. Sayles sports credits for revered schlock (Piranha, The Howling), kid-friendly fairy tales (The Secret of Roan Inish) and Ebert-friendly dramas (Lone Star, Men With Guns); he directed corny music videos for Bruce Springsteen; and he received a MacArthur Fellowship (the “Genius Award”) a few years after being nominated for a National Book Award (the “You’re Not Quite a Genius Yet But Just Wait Award”). Ridiculous. Sickening, even. The guy probably invented the first vegan meat substitute in his spare time, and under an assumed name, because he’s humble to boot.

Sayles appeared to be slowing down in the past few years, but it turned out he was busy writing A Moment in the Sun, a 968-page historical novel that McSweeney's published in May. Going to Pynchonian lengths to investigate American imperialism at the turn of the 20th century didn't require quite enough physical labor, however, so Sayles capped his burst of creativity by writing, directing and editing Amigo, an airless history lesson as insipidly didactic as it is well intentioned. 

An outgrowth of the extensive research that inspired Sayles' massive novel, Amigo zooms in on a small village on the Philippine island of Luzon during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), which found American soldiers defending colonial rule against guerrilla insurgents. A few detours to far-flung outposts notwithstanding, Sayles remains resolutely fixed on one small rural baryo in the months following its occupation by a band of American troops led by Lt. Compton (a constipated Garret Dillahunt) and Col. Hardacre (a really constipated Chris Cooper). Compton will slowly realize his reluctant subjects are actual human beings; Hardacre will not.

The "constipated dude vs. really constipated dude" dialectic is one of many tidy oppositions that give Amigo its shape while muting all but the most schematic resonances. Sayles' parched narrative lacks the sustaining illusion of possibility that drives drama forward; it is as if Sayles intended to lay bare the writer's secret binary code by erasing those vague gray smudges that make good art so damn difficult and thrilling. What we are left with, then, is an arrangement of allegiances as tidy as a soldier's foot locker: conciliatory father vs. insurgent son, velvet glove vs. iron fist, faith vs. reason, the aforementioned shitless grimace vs. the aforementioned even more shitless grimace. And although I'm inclined to trust Sayles' version of this oft-forgotten chapter of American history, I'm also pretty sure my 10th-grade algebra teacher's explanation of polynomials was unassailable—that doesn't mean I ever got from x to y without praying for a fire drill.

I ditched that algebra class for the vaunted GRE track halfway through sophomore year, but I stuck with high school long enough to learn where Amigo is likely to retire after its piquant parallels to current events elicit a few knowing sighs from the PBS donor-cum-knowing sigher set. I see a tired substitute teacher torn between two painful options: muddle through a borrowed lecture about a long-ago war or pop in a dull film about same. The lecture will put the students to sleep. So will the film, even with its brief bursts of violence. But the sub will choose the movie every time: Cracker-dry and soporific it may be, but the room will be dark enough to catch some secret shut-eye with the kids.

29 SEE IT: Amigo is rated R. It opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre.