On Film: "The Year of Living Dangerously"

Tuesday, November 8, 2011
(NOTE: after my very busy October and the submission of my JOURN 201 midterm article on Saturday, I finally had some time to watch one of the movies I've 'queued' through Netflix to augment my formal journalism education.  Hopefully, these viewings--along with posts to this blog--will be more frequent.)

"We'll make a great team, old man. You for the words, me for the pictures. I can be your eyes.'" -- Billy Kwan

I must admit that I had never heard of this movie prior to putting it on my Netflix DVD queue back in September.  Released in December 1982 this was during a period when such a film would not have been my first choice for an evening of Hollywood-created entertainment.  At the time, I was a 21-year old male Air Force member serving in the United Kingdom and action/comedies were my then-favorites.  In the near 30 years hence, I am sure that I had dozens of chances to watch it but never made the conscious decision to do so until this afternoon.  Nearly two hours later, I sat back in my recliner and asked myself why I avoided it for so long because it turned out to be a very good movie.  As I warned readers for my other movie review, I will be providing items that may spoil the experience if you have not seen the movie before.  If you fall into that category, I recommend you stop reading now.

The Year of Living Dangerously (I'll shorten it to TYOLD for the remainder of my review) is based on a 1978 novel by Christopher Koch.  This film adaptation stars Mel Gibson as Guy Hamilton, an overseas correspondent for the fictitious Australian Broadcasting Service (ABS) who is dispatched to Indonesia to report back to his home nation the newsworthy day-to-day activities from their neighboring country's capital.  He arrives in Jakarta in mid-1965 amid political tensions between the government (Sukarno, the country's first president, has been in power since being granted independence in 1945) and communist and Muslim opposition groups unified in their growing distaste to the president's increasingly autocratic rule.  He is introduced to Billy Kwan, a freelance photojournalist who also happens to be a fellow Australian of Chinese heritage (brilliantly played by Linda Hunt).  Early on, he sees that Hamilton lacks local sources (he had no overlap with the previous ABS journalist) to stay competitive in Jakarta's international press pool so Kwan provides him with personally derived information, including contacts that help set up an interview with the country's communist party (known by the acronym PKI) leader.  This ‘scoop’ helps him establish his credibility with the other media members and he is eventually welcomed into their social circle.  Hamilton is grateful to Kwan for his help and the two team up to provide ABS with interviews with key Indonesian political events and exclusive coverage of significant events (to include a mass PKI demonstration at the US Embassy).

As Kwan begins to see Hamilton as someone he can trust, he sets up an introduction with Jill Bryant, a British military attaché (played by American actress Sigourney Weaver).  The ABS correspondent takes a shine to her and a romantic dynamic is created that plays out throughout the remainder of the film.  In one key scene, we see her receiving a secret coded message concerning a suspected arms shipment from China inbound to the country's communist rebels.  Fearing for Hamilton's safety if Sukarno is overthrown, Bryant goes over to the ABS office to warn Guy and to recommend that he leave Indonesia immediately.  Incredibly, the Australian says that he needs to stay to cover the story, no matter the threat to his well-being, and this decision to file the story--using a source independent of Bryant—strains his relationships with Jill and his photojournalist partner.  This draws him closer to his office assistant Kumar who, along with another employee, reveal foreknowledge of the shipment, their ties to the communist organization as well as their desire for the despotic president's removal to improve the country's many problems.

Kwan, becoming increasingly disillusioned by the Sukaro regime's indifference to the country's deplorable social conditions (and the Western journalists' reluctance to report these facts back to their publication's readers), plans a daring demonstration at an event where the president is scheduled to attend (Hamilton and Bryant are also invited).  Right before the presidential motorcade pulls up to the hotel, Kwan unfurls a banner that is visible to the guests and to local Indonesians in the vicinity asking Sukarno to feed his people.  Unfortunately, government security officials burst into the room and proceed to throw Kwan out of the seventh story window where he dies in the late arriving Guy’s arms shortly after hitting the ground.  The next day, he and Bryant meet at Billy's residence to dispose of any incriminating files and she tells the Australian of her imminent departure plans.  Hamilton says he will join her but on the day of the flight, a military coup attempt occurs and the correspondent has his driver take him to the presidential palace to cover that story instead of the airport.  The guards prevent him from entering the grounds and one hits him upside the head with the butt of a rifle, detaching his retina and rendering him incapacitated for the short term.  Risking permanent blindness, he asks Kumar, who is now awaiting arrest for his association with the failed overthrow, to drive him to the airport.  He obliges and Hamilton gets him through a military checkpoint where rebel sympathizers are being summarily executed just off the side of the road.  Arriving at the terminal, Kumar asks his former boss to remember him when he is sitting safely in a European cafe because it was something he always dreamed of doing.  Guy makes his way through various security checkpoints inside the building (he turns over his recording equipment right before walking out onto the tarmac) and walks the remaining distance to the plane.  Seeing Hamilton approaching, the stairs are rolled back allowing him to board the jet where he is greeted by Bryant with a relieved and heartfelt embrace.

TYOLD was well received by audiences and Hurt's convincing depiction of Kwan earned her the  Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1984.  It has an 88 percent critics rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website and earned 7 out of 10 stars from IMDb users.  After viewing the movie, I will say that I agree with those majorities on the merits and overall quality but I will now focus on the journalistic aspects as I saw them.

  • Due to the period of these events, all of the international press figures depicted in the film are males and appear to fit stereotypical roles.  You have an American journalist, depicted as a careerist ‘horn dog’ who is only concerned about his next posting, his next piece of ass, and his personal role in the next world crisis.  You also have a Brit, portrayed as the ‘referee’ of the group who turns out to be a secretive homosexual.  A nondescript New Zealander is thrown in to bolster the idea that only current or former members of the British Empire are credible enough to be trusted with stewardship of the world’s press.  Since the book (and film) have an Australian perspective, Hamilton is treated more favorably with the evolution of his professional skills (and eventual regression based upon poor personal and ethical choices) serving as the main fictional plotline accompanying the real Indonesian activities.
  • While demonstrating the best qualities humans can exemplify Billy Kwan steps way over the line when it comes to the journalist credo of fairness and objectivity.  While all of the other Western journalists reside in a world almost completely isolated from the locale they report on (dwelling in an air-conditioned hotel, eating/drinking in restaurants/bars reserved for foreigners and well-heeled Indonesians, renting cars/drivers to ferry them about the city to meetings), he lives in a run-down bungalow out among the suffering Indonesian people.  About a third of the way into the film, we find out that Billy has ‘adopted’ a single mother and her young child, bringing by money and other items to help them survive Jakarta’s squalid living conditions but not even these contributions could protect the boy from an early disease-related death.  He also entertains Indonesian children with traditional shadow figure shows, and the axioms of those performances provide him the moral foundation on which he bases his decision to voice his growing displeasure with the Sukaro government—one headed by someone he once called a ‘great man’.  In a confrontation right before making his decision, a distraught Billy confronts his journalist comrades on why they do not report on what is readily obvious to him and When they bring up Billy’s own contradictions concerning Sukaro, he points out their personal hypocrisies which alienates him from that group and pushes Kwan towards the decision to unfurl his banner and its terrible outcome as the scene below shows:

  • As someone who waxes nostalgic over yesteryear’s cutting-edge technologies, TYOLD provided several instances that triggered such geeky yearning.  Since Hamilton is a radio reporter, his primary tool for his craft is a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder for interviews and personal dictation and the model shown in the film is about the size of a briefcase (contrast that to today’s digital recorders that can slip easily into a coat pocket).  The same can be said for Billy’s video and still cameras.  In the scene where Hamilton first visits Kwan’s residence, he explains to his guest that he must have air conditioning due to his considerable use of film, a fickle photographic medium that requires stable temperature and humidity levels.  The last item involves Guy filing a report with his Australian headquarters from the Jakarta studio through the use of a direct radio link (you can hear some Morse code in the background during the exchange with the Sydney office).  With the internet giving today’s journalists and bloggers nearly continuous connectivity to anywhere in the world, it is almost unthinkable to remember that, not so long ago, communications used to be tightly scheduled in order to maximize the use of scarce landline or wireless resources or to enable submissions from multiple locations by a given deadline.  Much has changed in communications--and in journalism--over the past 40+ years and I must say it has all been for the better.

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