With the recent death of Dith Pran, the Cambodian photojournalist who inspired the 1984 film “The Killing Fields,” it seems appropriate to write a film vault to coincide with the tragedy. But “The Killing Fields,” for all the Oscar nominations it has to its name, is unforgivably manipulative and preachy. Instead, I’m reminded of a contemporary of that film, one that also deals with the perils of a hotshot journalist amidst social and political strife in Southeast Asia. The film, Peter Weir’s “The Year of Living Dangerously,” is arguably one of the most underrated films of the decade, and a sparkling gem on one of the most consistently impressive résumés of any director working today.
A post-“Mad Max,” pre-“Lethal Weapon” Mel Gibson stars as Guy Hamilton, a young Aussie journalist stationed in Jakarta in 1965. With Indonesia divided by civil war and the threat of wider conflict looming, journalists are scrambling to get their names on the big story. Guy soon becomes a celebrity among his colleagues, earning the attention of half-American, half-Chinese dwarf Billy Kwan (actually played by a woman, Linda Hunt, in an Oscar-winning performance). Meanwhile, Guy falls in love with an alluring British diplomat, Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver, “Aliens”) – but as political tensions grow within the community, the trio finds their close bond threatened.
“The Year of Living Dangerously” simmers with a quiet menace. The tension comes not from the brutal events that surround the characters – apart from one stirring scene halfway through, there’s little actual bloodshed – but from the general sense of tragedy that envelops them. At its heart, the film is a romance, and it’s the subtle, honest performances from its three leads that drive it. But it’s also a thriller, one that wrings tension out of emotion, not action.
Much of the praise should also be heaped upon Weir. An Australian who began his career making art films in the ’70s – strange, dreamlike films like “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975) – Weir came into his own when he went mainstream in the early ’80s with this film and its predecessor, the masterful war movie “Gallipoli” (1981). Weir’s genius has always come from his ability to disguise what are essentially highly unorthodox, artful tone poems as commercial products. Even his famous Hollywood films, like “Witness” (1985) and “Fearless” (1993), are offbeat and idiosyncratic.
“The Year of Living Dangerously” may very well be his best film and that’s saying something. There’s probably no better cinematic testament to the sheer bravery and commitment of journalists than this film. So for all intents and purposes, it’s this – not “The Killing Fields” – which should be honored in conjunction with the legacy of Pran.