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The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir) 1983   

    Peter Weirís The Year of Living Dangerously starts out as a remarkably good film. Itís a mildly romantic, highly intelligent look at the political upheaval in 1960ís Indonesia filtered through the eyes of two journalists. The film starts out being narrated by Billy Kwan (played by Linda Hunt in a stupendously successful bit of gender-blind casting), and his character has a clear point of view with a mixture of optimistic humanity and grounded reality thatís perfect as an audience surrogate. The observations that are made through his eyes often tell us far more about the other characters than they do themselves. Billy is absolutely sympathetic toward the plight of the citizens of this Third World country, and that makes his belief in the regime and the obligation of the press to tell the truth compelling. Itís unfortunate, then, that his character exits the film with about an hour left, leaving the role of sympathetic character to be carried by Mel Gibsonís callow and shallow young pup, Guy. Without Billy to explain to him the significance of things, Guy turns the movie into a more typical and xenophobic exercise that confirms for foreign audiences that all of their worst fears about a place like Jakarta are indeed true. This lapse certainly doesnít sink the picture entirely, but it does little to build upon the refreshing viewpoint found in the filmís first half. 

    Eventual ho-hum isolationism aside, thereís plenty to like here. Certainly the film is adept at evoking the feel of a poverty stricken nation, and itís to Weirís credit that he rarely stoops to easy sentimentalism. The scenes that follow our foreign correspondents as they smash through roadblocks and plunge into the rioting masses are sufficiently rebellious and exciting to make the title feel apt, even if the only supposedly interesting love story thatís there as a subplot seems to do the opposite. One canít exactly blame the actors, who are pretty enough, for the lack of real sparks though, because the script doesnít develop them into people with satisfying motivating concerns (mostly they seem horny). Weirís direction of them isnít really at fault, either. He pulls the good stuff from his actors without ever amping things up too wildly. If the film lacks the poetic attention to and transcendence from the physical world that Weirís best work contains, thatís okay too, because the mood here is more about experience than reflection. Complexities are apparently as rare in Indonesia as they are in most of Hollywood. Nonetheless, The Year of Living Dangerously is a rousing and sharp look at a land thatís far from our own in more ways than one. 

* * * 

01-09-02 

Jeremy Heilman