FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Year of Living Dangerously
Reviewed by Leonard Quart 

The Year of Living Dangerously  (1983)

The Year of Living Dangerously (1983)

Produced by James McElroy; directed by Peter Weirscreenplay by C. J. Koch, Peter Weir, and David Williamson; cinematography by Russell Boyd; editing by William Anderson; art direction by Herbert Pinter; music by Maurice Jarre; costume design by Terry Ryan; starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hunt, and Michael Murphy. DVD, color, 115 min., 1983. A Warner Archive Collection release.

Peter Weir has directed a wide variety of films over the last forty years both in his native Australia and in the United States. He played a leading role in the Australian New Wave with such films as the eerie, atmospheric Picnic at Hanging Rock and the WWI film Gallipoli, and later made international and American films such as the romantic thriller Witness, set among the Amish, the sentimentally inspirational Dead Poets Society, and the simultaneously imaginative but figuratively and literally airless The Truman Show.

Weir has thus directed films in all kinds of genres and, if lacking a defined authorial vision, has nevertheless produced a body of consistently intelligent, solid, and skillfully produced work. The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), his fifth film, starred a young (and pre-controversy-prone) Mel Gibson as Guy Hamilton, a cocky but inexperienced Australian reporter attempting to build a reputation by digging up scoops on the political turmoil in Indonesia in 1965, during the dictatorial rule of President Sukarno.

Guy works closely in Jakarta with Billy, a diminutive Chinese-Australian photographer, portrayed by Linda Hunt, a New York theater actress who convincingly, even brilliantly, plays a man in a performance that won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Billy becomes Guy’s mentor, introducing him to Indonesia’s poverty and corruption. As Guy’s deepest human connection, Bill is the most striking figure in a film populated by a cast of characters lacking any dimension.

The film’s distinctiveness, in fact, stems from the characterization of Billy as a man self-conscious about his size, who feels unloved, and who has a mysterious, subtly manipulative, and unpredictable nature. He has a connection to Jakarta’s prime political players, knows many of their secrets, and keeps personal dossiers on people with whom he interacts, including Guy, the contents of which Billy sometimes shares with us in voice-over. His politics are nebulous and he believes in acts of charity rather than social reform. Billy also ingenuously places great faith in Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, the “voice of the Third World,” an authoritarian ruler who was able from 1945 to 1967 to balance Indonesia’s major conflicting forces—the military, Islam, and the communists. He differs, however, from the other foreigners in Jakarta—primarily heavy-drinking journalists, embassy personnel, and businessmen—since most of them are either utterly cynical or contemptuous towards the mass of Indonesians they must deal with. Billy, however, immerses himself in the street life and culture of the city. He knows its poverty firsthand and is even committed to supporting an impoverished mother and child for whom he cares deeply.

There is, however, a touch of self-consciousness and pretentiousness in the film’s depiction of Billy. He quotes Tolstoy and the New Testament to affirm his social conscience, and uses Indonesian puppets to perform shadow plays that reflexively embody the film’s characters. About the latter, he says enigmatically, “Look at the shadows, not the puppets.”

Still, it’s Billy who, at moments, moves the film beyond the conventions of the romantic adventure genre in which much of it is mired. Despite the undeniable physical appeal of its two young co-stars, The Year of Living Dangerously spends far too much time on a supposedly passionate affair between Guy and a beautiful British Embassy attaché, Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), with whom Billy is close and whom he also loves unrequitedly.

Guy and Jill’s love is tested when Jill secures information on a planned communist coup against President Sukarno and urges Guy to leave the country. But Guy is professionally ambitious and betrays her confidence by filing a major story for which she is the obvious source. It’s the turning point of the film. Billy becomes disenchanted with Guy, although, more importantly, he feels despair with and revulsion for his hero, the vain Sukarno, for using people and for his betrayal of the country by not preventing the military takeover.

Beyond conveying the complexities of Billy’s character, Weir also has a real feeling for place. Using Manila and the Philippines as a stand-in for Jakarta and Indonesia (the film had to be completed in Australia after a Filipino Muslim group protested it as being anti-Islam), Weir was able to convey vividly the fetid atmosphere of a humid, sweaty tropical world, its night streets enveloped in squalor (fires burning, people sleeping on the ground), and awash in abject poverty. This environment of a world without hope was fertile ground for a communist movement that offered at least the possibility of change. In fact, Guy’s loyal Indonesian assistant, Kumar (Bembol Roco), a communist, is treated with great sympathy, although Weir’s film does not take an explicit political position in this conflict.

The greatest weakness of The Year of Living Dangerously is its inability to clearly depict the nature of the political turmoil in Indonesia, admittedly a tall order for any film. It fails, for example, to convey even the well-known fact that the alleged communist coup attempt was a fabricated cover story for a military and paramilitary coup against Sukarno, which resulted in the slaughter of over a million alleged communists. In what was one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century, the Indonesian Communist Party was eliminated as a political force, and the upheavals led to the downfall of President Sukarno, although he remained in office as a puppet of the military for several years. The newly installed military regime, backed by the United States and led by General Suharto, would rule Indonesia for the next thirty years.

Obviously, no one should expect a mainstream film like this to explore fully the political dynamics of the Indonesian coup. It is possible, however, for political thrillers (e.g., Costa-Gavras’s Z) effectively to combine action and an incisive political critique. What Weir offers us instead is a vague and unclear sketch of the political events and a contrived happy ending, with a slightly wounded Guy going off with Jill on one of the last planes out of Jakarta.

Leonard Quart is co-author of American Film and Society Since 1945 (Praeger), now in its fourth edition.

To purchase The Year of Living Dangerously, click here.

Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3