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The Year of Living Dangerously

The Year of Living Dangerously (Weir, 1982)

This review contains spoilers.

For whatever reason, the early to mid '80s saw a number of movies pop up about journalists covering precarious political situations and foreign conflicts. Why the trend? Well, I'm sure somebody somewhere has already offered analysis that's intelligent and thoughtful, but let me provide some dumbassed speculation of my own. If I were a betting man, I'd wager that some combination of post-Watergate political disillusionment, a reaction to a right wing presidency (all roads lead to Reagan) and increasing awareness of the role America was playing in these conflicts thanks to coverage of civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador played a part. Of these movies, my two favourites would have to be Circle of Deceit, the West German film shot dangerously near actual conflict zones in Beirut and where Bruno Ganz thirsts for Hanna Schygulla in between bartering for massacre photos, and Under Fire, where Gene Hackman puts in a wonderfully textured and pained performance as the third wheel in a romance between Nick Nolte and Joanna Cassidy while the three of them cover the Sandinista uprising.

What both those movies have in greater supply than this one is a willingness to interrogate the eagerness with with their journalist heroes cover real life horrors, milking bloodshed to sell papers or get ratings. There's a scene in Under Fire where a group of journalists watches a bombing campaign from atop a hotel that succinctly conveys this queasy dynamic of war as a spectator sport. There's an element of this in The Year of Living Dangerously, where the hero gets so eager to pursue the story he thinks he's caught onto, about an attempted Communist uprising, that he completely misses the actual military coup and subsequent massacre that takes place. The final stretch of the film shows the hero and his Communist-affiliated assistant racing to the airport as the killings begin. These scenes are tense, and at least for a PG-rated film, quite bracing in their impact, but the final shots, where the hero is reunited with his love, hit a completely solipsistic note, entirely inappropriate for the material.

When discussing this movie, the elephant in the room has to be Linda Hunt's character. It's not just that she's playing an Asian character, which is bad enough on its own, but that the characterization seems to play so readily into unmasculine stereotypes about Asian men that are unfortunately so prevalent even today. This was Hunt's breakout film role, and credit to her, she's very good, managing to wring nuance and poignancy out of this extremely loaded characterization. But at the same time, seeing her in this makeup is about as distracting as Sean Connery's Japanese disguise in You Only Live Twice, without the camp elements of that other movie to make it easier to laugh off.

All that being said, this is a very gripping movie on the whole. As Ebert points out in his review, this does a great job of capturing the tense yet perhaps a little thrilling ambience such a political situation would evoke for its journalist hero, the humid atmosphere, and the callous group dynamic in the foreign journalist community. (It was nice, after having first seen it on a muddy DVD copy, to revisit this in a crisp HD transfer, which really let the technical aspects shine.) There's a great, slimy performance by Michael Murphy as a journalist who seems to enjoy his job a little too much, in contrast to the naive idealism of Mel Gibson's hero. At the risk of sounding glib, I think a lot of Gibson's performances are coloured by the darkness of his real life, but this is the furthest I've seen him get away from those qualities. And there's also Bembol Roco as Gibson's assistant, turning in work too subtle for Gibson's myopic character to pick up on. And of course Sigourney Weaver, who I don't need to tell you is great as she always is.