The Year of Living Dangerously (dir. Peter Weir, 1984)
“In focus, it’s pornography. Out of focus, it’s art.” – Billy Kwan played by Linda Hunt
“As with all these movies, casting is the biggest rewrite.” – Pete Weir
“That’s a story you journos don’t want to tell.”
“Nobody wants to hear it.”
“Tell them anyway.” – Billy and Guy discussing the plight of poor Indonesians
Rarely, if ever, do I drink with purpose. Sure I’ll have drinks to celebrate a special occasion, or even after a rough day at work. But real, honest, pounding-them-down-with-purpose eludes me. That’s why a very small part of me wishes I could be assigned to a conflict zone (a wish I apparently share with Lady Gaga) — if only so I could hang out at that one bar where all the expats and journalists hang out, ala Casablanca. Drinking takes on a whole new importance when you could be maimed or imprisoned at any moment (vs. now, where the biggest risk I run is leaving my credit card behind at the bar).
And the character at the center of The Year of Living Dangerously has reason to drink. He’s an Australian journalist named Guy Maddin (Mel Gibson) who’s been assigned to cover the political conflict in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1965. Loosely based on a novel of the same name written by Christopher Koch, The Year of Living Dangerously is a mix of political thriller, romance, and travelogue. Maddin learns the ropes in Jakarta from a local photojournalist named Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt). He falls into a relationship with a British diplomat, Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver). And ultimately, he has to flee the country as the government collapses and a communist insurgency takes control. The film also just so happens to have one of those iconic expat bars I was talking about. A place where all the world-weary reporters swap stories and find solace during a time of upheaval.
The film was expertly directed by Australian auteur, Peter Weir (Witness, The Truman Show, Picnic at Hanging Rock). Weir is a filmmaker who might not have as pronounced a visual style as someone like Scorsese, yet, over 40+ years he’s amassed a collection of influential films across genres. Everything from the quintessential inspiring teacher movie (Dead Poets Society) to the quintessential Russel Crowe on a tall ship movie (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). For some reason, Weir’s career reminds me of Milos Foreman. Both were pioneers in their home countries — Foreman as part of the Czech New Wave, Weir as part of the Australian New Wave. Then both filmmakers made the transition to Hollywood, working across genres and consistently releasing A-list films to critical acclaim. Neither really became household names, but they filled that void for fully-realized, un-showy stories for adults.
The Year of Living Dangerously is part of a genre with a long complicated history — the western journalist covering a foreign country on the brink. (The early 80s alone gave us The Killing Fields, Gandhi, and Salvador…just to name a few.) And on the one hand, anytime you’re exposing a mass audience to new aspects of recent history, it’s a good thing. Anytime a film elicits empathy (or even sympathy) for a foreign country and its struggles, I’m on board. But on the other hand, there’s certainly an argument that too often human suffering and civil war are merely used as exotic backdrops for conventional stories of romance and redemption. In the case of The Year of Living Dangerously, both things are true. It’s a beautiful, intoxicating film, full of tender performances that exposed me to a volatile moment in Indonesian history — yet, it centered this tragic conflict around the romance of two tall, White westerners.
That’s not to say that Weir isn’t aware of this nuance. He openly explores the prejudice some journalists have toward the people they’re covering. The character of Pete Curtis, played by Michael Murphy, is a complete embodiment of the salacious western journalist who views the country around him as a source of amusement — making a poor man dance for money, frequenting the brothels, and generally acting like an asshole from The Vice Guide to Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll.
The other element that any review of Year of Living Dangerously is legally obligated to mention is the performance by Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan. In the story, Billy Kwan is a half-Chinese, half-Australian man with dwarfism. Playing the role of Billy is Linda Hunt, a White, queer woman from New Jersey with dwarfism. It’s a representation Rubik’s Cube. And a perfect example of the complicated questions that come with representation in film. But here’s the thing, no matter where you come down of whether or not her casting is kosher, the performance is undeniably a highlight of the film. Billy is the beating heart of the movie. He provides the most complex point of view, note-perfect narration, and all the best lines of dialog. It also won Linda Hunt an Oscar.
The Year of Living Dangerously made me ache for a time when you could see films of this scale in theaters. Not to say epics no longer exist, they do, but rarely with such tactility. There’s so much happening inside every frame, so many characters stacked from front to back in every shot, I found myself rewinding scenes just to take in the entirety of the action. And this layering serves a general theme of the film too: In Jakarta, there are too many stories to tell. Too many allegiances to keep track of. Too much complexity to be reduced down into a short news report…or, a movie for that matter.
- While there are still plenty of remote places that haven’t been instagrammed to death, part of me wonders how hard it would be to make a movie like this today? Would Maddin and Bryant be posting photos of the conflict as it happens? What hashtags would they use in their reports? So much of the tension in a film like Year of Living Dangerously is created by the distance between our protagonists and their home.
- When it comes to unique names, Sigourney Weaver has always been a sleeper favorite. I’ve never heard of anyone else named Sigourney. Apparently she based it on an obscure Great Gatsby character? It’s up there with Rip (Torn) and Denzel (Washington) as a first name that’s inextricably linked to one person. Hollywood may have a million Chrises, but there can only be one Sigourney.