Sunday, March 23, 2008
Words and Pictures
Despite poster art that suggests a florid Harlequin romance, The Year of Living Dangerously (1983) is actually one of a trio of films released a year apart in the early-1980s that depicted Western journalists growing a conscience while covering the plight of Third World nations. The Killing Fields took place in Cambodia; Under Fire, Nicaragua. The locale of The Year of Living Dangerously, 1960s Indonesia, is the most atmospheric of the three -- no surprise coming from Peter Weir, who has always had a knack for creating fish-out-of-water scenarios that regard the local habitat as more than window dressing.
Mel Gibson (who looks as astonishingly boyish here as Al Pacino does in The Godfather) is Guy Hamilton, an ambitious Australian correspondent sent to Indonesia during the dictatorship of Sukharno. His established colleagues, a mix of Brits and Americans, have resigned themselves to a sense of bored entitlement involving the purchase of bungalows and the courting of starving prostitutes, but Hamilton is hot for a story. His hastily developed partnership with Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a photographer with mysterious contacts among Sukharno's communist rivals, enables him to score hard-to-get interviews; and his romance with Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), an attache at the British embassy, acquires him with secret information about an upcoming coup.
Most of the attention for this movie was paid to Linda Hunt's portrayal of a male character, but her turn isn't a case of stunt casting. (Weir has stated that she simply auditioned and won the part.) Billy is the audience surrogate in the early and best passages of the movie, as we follow him from expatriate taverns to an impoverished neighborhood where he tends to a young woman and her gravely ill child. Half-Chinese, diminutive in stature, Billy is treated as a kind of mascot by the Anglo-Americans, and the slyness of Hunt's performance is in how cunningly Billy uses their condescension to his advantage. Yet right away, Billy's relationship with Guy is on a more complicated level, mutual admiration evolving at the same time each one is using the other. "We'll make a great team," he tells Hamilton. "You for the words, me for the pictures."
Structurally, Weir and his co-screenwriters attempt something very tricky: as the love affair between Guy and Jill comes to the forefront of the movie, Billy recedes into the background while still registering as the prime mover of events. Billy, who once proposed to Jill, orchestrates their relationship, surreptitiously photographs their rendezvous together, and hammers out files about them on his typewriter. Never fully trusting Billy's intentions, Guy suspects him of being a CIA operative. Both are actually closet idealists, differing only in the means by which each strives to achieve his objectives: Guy impulsively throwing himself into hostile situations, Billy like a chess-player surveying the board.
More than most Western filmmakers, Weir takes pains to present the inhabitants of foreign countries as human beings with lives of their own. But The Year of Living Dangerously gets muddled in its final act, with Guy racing to the airport while negotiating his way through squads of soldiers with angry, leering faces. Underused is Michael Murphy in a one-note role as a boorish American journalist, the only surprise being that he isn't killed by film's end. Hunt's great performance is undercut only by one of her last scenes -- when Billy tells Guy that he "created" him -- which requires her to get self-consciously actorly.
25 years later, The Year of Living Dangerously is still worth another look. (I have no idea if a special edition is planned.) It's a reminder that Gibson was once a charming actor, and Weaver an uninhibited one. Their relationship, however cliched, is one of the movie's most convincing, funny and touching elements. While they mesh well together, they are far from a perfect fit. In one pointed scene, Jill tells Guy that she found one of his on-the-air news stories melodramatic, mentioning the faces of starving children repeatedly when, she opines, "perhaps once would be better." That's a good description of Weir's own style, which is socially conscious without sacrificing the economy of the story. Moreover, Weir's deeply felt romanticism -- which would reach a creative peak in his next film, Witness -- is burnished in a wonderful sequence where Jill, having just translated a coded message with dire portents, walks dazedly through a monsoon to Guy's studio to the sound of Vangelis's "Opera Sauvage" (actually from another movie; Maurice Jarre, Weir's frequent collaborator, composed the overall score), and in a long unbroken take the camera lingers on the image of Weaver holding Gibson close, soaking him with rain.