Noted novelist/director Sayles (Union Dues, 2005, etc.) turns in an epic of Manifest Destiny—and crossed destinies—so sweeping and vast that even he would have trouble filming it.
The year is 1897. As Sayles’ cat-squasher of a book opens, a greenhorn arrival at the Alaska gold fields meets a man named Joe Raven, who “is something called a Tlingit and there is no bargaining with him.” As so often happens in Sayles’s filmic narratives, the native man possesses wisdom that is crucial for survival—but, alas, too few of the Anglo newcomers, sure of the superiority of American civilization, are willing to admit his usefulness. Hod, the newcomer, is assured that American civilization will come through for him: remarks a fellow miner, “Got a steady man in the White House who understands there are fortunes to be made if the government will just step out of the way and let us at em.” Holy shades of Ron Paul, Batman. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, a young Filipino, Diosdado Concepción, is preparing himself for battle against the colonizers of his island; he is brash enough that a fellow fighter is moved to caution, “I am a patriot…but not a suicide.” Farther away still are two African-American soldiers, Royal Scott and Junior Lunceford, who are discovering just how racist the America of the turn of the century can be. Sayles pulls all these characters onto a huge global stage, setting them into motion as America goes to war against Spain and takes its first giant step toward becoming a world power. The narrative is full of historical lessons of the Howard Zinn/Studs Terkel radical-revisionist school, but Sayles is too good a writer to be a propagandist; his stories tell their own lessons, and many will be surprises (who knew that there were lynchings in Brooklyn as well as the Deep South?).
A long time in coming, with an ending that’s one of the most memorable in recent literature. A superb novel, as grand in its vision as one of President McKinley’s dreams—but not for a moment, as Sayles writes of that figure, “empty of thought, of emotion.”