At the 1983 Academy Awards, a four-foot-nine dynamo of a New York stage actress named Linda Hunt took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in The Year of Living Dangerously. It was a noteworthy win on numerous fronts: Not only did Hunt beat out heavyweights Cher, Glenn Close, Amy Irving, and Alfre Woodard for the statue in only her second ever film role, but the New Jersey native did so by playing a Chinese-Australian bloke named Billy Kwan. A bloke with dwarfism to boot.
Hunt’s performance is probably the thing for which Dangerously is most remembered all these years later. The story of Australian radio journalist Guy Hamilton’s (Mel Gibson) first year in Jakarta—a year lived on the eve and during a coup attempt against Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, in 1965—was generally well received, but it was not the box office nor critical smash some hoped would come from the man who is still Australia’s most acclaimed director, Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, and later The Truman Show), overseeing the country’s most expensive production to date.
Re-watching the film recently, history has been fair: Hunt is the most mesmerizing thing on screen. Her Billy Kwan—a freelance newsreel photographer and fixer whose adoration of Sukarno sours as Weir plunges further into the squalor festering on his watch—is a wonderful escort into the dueling worlds of Indonesia’s brimming capital and the white men who cover it. He’s a touch “off,” keeping a detailed file on Hamilton and moving characters around like pawns, but ultimately winning. Hunt balances glinty-eyed know-how, wide-eyed naivety, and ultimately, bitter disillusionment, expertly, shaping in Kwan a likable stand-in for viewers who might otherwise be pummeled by the by the story’s politics and turns. And, yes, Hunt is convincing as a bloke.
But Billy Kwan might also be Dangerously’s biggest problem. In dropping into the film’s assemblage of complex motives as moralistic and riveting a device as Billy, you get the feeling Weir isn’t playing fair. Hunt’s Billy undercuts much of the murky goodness at the center of this story—where journalists make difficult decisions out of knee-jerk reporter’s instinct, for personal gain, and sometimes because, to their eye, it is the right thing to do. There’s a trove of stuff to chew on here, to muse upon. But the likable little guy is the audience’s stand-in and their moral compass and his view is given primacy. This is particularly problematic when it comes to Weir’s assemblage of foreign correspondents.
First, it should be noted that Weir and writer David Williamson (probably Australia’s most lauded playwright and screenwriter—Don’s Party, Gallipoli), working from a novel by Christopher Koch, get a lot right about the profession. The collegial competitiveness between the foreign correspondents is wonderfully realized: barroom banter between the comfy old-schooler Wally O’Sullivan (Noel Ferrier), ambitious Yank Pete Curtis (Bill Kerr), and Gibson’s Hamilton feels authentic. There’s some new guy ribbing before a cautious acceptance; then, when Hamilton begins scooping his rivals—with the help of ever-present Billy—some reluctant kudos. It’s funny too to watch Hamilton forced to affect a more British air to his voice when phoning in his dispatches. (If there is one thing Australians don’t like to hear, it’s themselves.)
Weir is also expert when it comes to large-scale crowd scenes: Billy and Hamilton’s drive into a rally for the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) outside the American embassy to get sound and footage feels particularly claustrophobic, with Weir cooping us up inside the car with his principles for much of the action.
The journalists of Dangerously feel fleshless. The ambitious Yank is just an ambitious Yank, his repulsiveness compounded by a particularly craven late-night prowl for local prostitutes. The comfy old-schooler is just that too: a boozy bit of walking paunch whose big character moment comes when we glimpse him stroking the arm of a young male servant. Even the prelapsarian Gibson—blue-eyed, wrinkle-free, and primed for stardom—is little more than a new guy in town. We know he’s generous with his Lucky Strikes and that he flew here from Sydney, but we learn little more. He says been waiting ten years for the Jakarta gig, but why?
The fact that Hamilton falls for an assistant to a British attaché played by Sigourney Weaver tells us little besides the fact that he likes beautiful things. Weaver’s character is not much more than beauty, British-ness, and height.
So when the inevitable sticky ethical questions come, it’s difficult to understand the journalist’s motivations let alone sympathize with them. In one pivotal scene, Weaver’s character let’s Hamilton know that Chinese communists are arming the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). He seizes on the scoop. “You can’t do this,” Weaver’s character tells him, knowing if the story breaks, she will be fingered for leaking it. “Then you shouldn’t have told me,” he answers coolly.
Billy’s voiceover is soon musing upon how much Hamilton has changed—look, there he is bribing a source—and how he is just like the others, making a “fetish” of his career. Billy wants Hamilton to be more the activist reporter, to expose the poverty he himself has really just opened his eyes to. At one point, Billy tears into a bar to berate the correspondents for failing to focus on Jakarta’s poverty and announces loudly their individual foibles—the booze, the whores, and the boys.
Had any of the foreign correspondents made a strong case for their profession, it might have been a fair fight. Had the filmmakers allowed them to stake out a place for incisive, clear-headed, factual foreign reporting—and the value that can be to a world watching on as Indonesia’s future played out—the audience might not side so quickly and innately with Billy. Hamilton does mount something of a defense at one point, but only in as much as it relates to his betrayal. Even if a stronger defense were mounted though, coming from these characters we may be disinclined to listen.
As it stands, Dangerously leaves us with a group of rather hollow career fetishists and Kwan: the brilliantly played, engaging moralizer who, while a tad Machiavellian in his puppet-mastery of Hamilton, ultimately dies for his belief that Indonesia has a better future. The scribes don’t stand a chance.
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