Sunday, February 20, 2011

My Favorite Movies: The Year of Living Dangerously

Back in 1982, Mel Gibson was not the angry, drunken stumblebum he is today.  He had not yet developed that sense of self that allows a rational human being reinterpret history and market it as the truth.  He had not yet thrown an interesting, promising career in the toilet.
Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson share steamy chemistry in the Year of Living Dangerously
In fact Gibson was relatively unknown in the United States and had not yet appeared in an American movie.  Though Americans might have known him for his two post apocalyptic Mad Max movies, I had already seen him in Peter Weir's Gallipoli, a World War I drama based on the tragic disaster in Turkey.  Gibson was fine as a young Australian soldier shipped off to the Dardanelles with his mates, only to share watch them share in the slaughter of the Great War.  Weir's movie is an effective antidote to any suggestion the First World War was properly managed and those who prosecuted it were simply victims of changing technology.

In 1982, Weir undertook another movie with an Australian/East Asian theme, the last days of the Sukarno Regime in Indonesia in 1965.  Gibson was tapped to star in the movie as Guy Hamilton, a neophyte foreign reporter for Australian Broadcasting sent to report from Java without contacts, and without understanding the culture. Pitied but not aided by his European and American competitors, Hamilton is befriended by Billy Kwan, a half Asian,  half Australian, diminutive newsreel and still photographer.  Kwan uses his unique ability to connect Hamilton with important players on the volatile Indonesian political stage, including Jill Bryant, an assistant to the British military attache. As Hamilton's reporting gains respectability, Kwan also  shows him the poverty and inequity of Indonesian society.  In this complex story Hamilton becomes romantically involved with Bryant, who is scheduled to leave Indonesia for London soon.  As it were, fate takes a hand when the Indonesian Communist party stages a coup that is brutally suppressed by the forces of the right.  Revealing more would be spoiling.
Linda Hunt won a well deserved Academy Award for her role as Bill Kwan
Weir tells this story, an obscure, fascinating tale from complexity and watchers have to follow along carefully.  The story is supported by great performances.  Gibson is superb as Hamilton, a tall, dark and handsome go-getter, that is intelligent and charismatic.  Sigourney Weaver plays Bryant.  She is understated, mysterious and beautiful.  However the best perfornance is reserved for Linda Hunt and her portrayal of Bill Kwan.  Kwan's character is secretive, strangely androgynous, and demonstrates an appreciation for Sukarno's regime that is at once admiring and outraged at its inequity.  Hunt won a well deserved Academy Award for her role.   Michael Murphy, Noel Ferrier, and Bemol Roco, among others provide great supporting performances.  Maurice Jarre's electronic score is also particularly effective.  I often find myself oddly humming the exhilarating background to Jill and Guy's breakneck drive through a curfew checkpoint. 

The Year of Living Dangerously is an intelligent, interesting drama based on a real life incident.  It shows the kind of movies Mel Gibson made and could have continued making if his career had taken a different turn


TODD said...

It's funny how I read this earlier today and now the movie is on Encore-Mystery. Unfortunately I missed the first hour and a half, but will definitely look for it again.

Kurt Weihs said...

Definitely a great movie...more because of Hunt's portrayal of the tragic Billy Kwan character. The movie also helped bring attention to events that were quickly being overshadowed by US involvement in Viet Nam. The Vangelis soundtrack is another plus.