The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
Written by David Williamson, Peter Weir, and C.J. Koch
Directed by Peter Weir
In a complete coincidence, I am currently reading The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World by Vincent Bevins. I’m just about four chapters in but am already learning a lot about Indonesia and the part the CIA played in completely destabilizing that country. However, I was completely unaware that this film is specifically about the coup attempt in that country in the mid-1960s. This immediately raised my radar, wanting to see how the picture treats its communist characters. Will they be nuanced, developed participants in the story or faceless monsters like orcs in Lord of the Rings. Is this a movie influenced by anti-communist Western propaganda or an honest telling of what was happening in Indonesia?
Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) has been sent by his Australian television network to cover the ongoing crisis in Indonesia. He meets a group of journalists from other Western countries but becomes close friends with Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt). Kwan is a Chinese man with dwarfism reporting what goes on in Indonesia but has become morally compelled to get involved. Guy has zero contacts and struggles to get interviews with anyone of import in the country, but Billy feels sympathy for him and helps introduce the Australian to the important people. Guy eventually meets Jill (Sigourney Weaver), an assistant at the British embassy. Billy begins manipulating the interactions between these two, pushing them towards a romance. However, when the coup breaks out, everything is thrown into chaos, and Guy ends up forever transformed by what he sees in Indonesia.
First, Linda Hunt’s performance must be addressed. At the time, it was remarked by liberals at what a wonderfully progressive decision it was to have a woman play what was is a male character. And there is some insight that does bring to questions about gender and acting in film & television. I think it would be fascinating to see gender swaps in casting. However, Billy is also Chinese, and so her performance becomes yellow-face. She isn’t a bad actor in any way, and the performance on a purely surface level is a good one. But it’s just ridiculous to think there were no Asian actors that could have done the role. For fuck’s sake, the supporting cast and extras are full of Asian people. Basically, all the goodwill that might have been given for the challenge to gender is made moot by the point that Asian men are often feminized as a means to disempower them in Western media.
This also points to what I see as an even bigger problem in the film. The conflict in Indonesia set the very dark, violent tone that the United States would take for the rest of the Cold War serves only as a backdrop for the lusty drama between Guy & Jill. Weirdly, such a moment in Indonesia’s history that led to executions and brutalization doesn’t center the experience of those people. It’s the beautiful, photogenic white people whom the camera points at, and everything else is set dressing. This is not to diminish the quality of production. Weir expertly shoots all his movies with some of the most painterly lighting I’ve seen in a picture from this era. It cannot be said that the director does a poor job, but he does lean into the centrist, anti-communist narratives that all Western media pushes.
Not once in The Year of Living Dangerously does the picture address the nature of the coup being a CIA-led plot to overthrow a leader they had become dissatisfied with. What happened was the fake communist coup led to a military coup, the slaughter of over a million alleged communists. This is one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century leading to the obliteration of the Indonesian communist party. For thirty years, the president remained in power as a puppet, while General Suharto actually ruled with backing by the U.S. government for 30 years.
It should be evident to anyone looking deeply at film that Western media is essentially worthless when tackling anything socio-political. There are two paths these films take: they are either rabidly anti-communist or passively tepid in their depiction of events. Dangerously is the latter, giving us a good story but ultimately ignoring any attempt to lead the audience to a greater understanding of the political conflict. This is seen in the contrived happy ending but even more so in the character of Billy. Billy Kwan is presented as an apolitical centrist above the conflict and, therefore, the best person. The photog seems to have no interest in understanding why the people are suffering because of these events. It might be helpful to determine the actual source of the suffering rather than just thinking small acts of charity could possibly overcome a crisis this intense.
Peter Weir is a remarkable director, and his work is always technically sumptuous. However, this one misses the mark. It’s moderate liberal pap designed to pretentiously encourage the audience to see themselves above the conflict rather than put them down in the streets and give a better understanding of how this came about, especially the US government’s role in making it happen. It would be the film to break Weir out of the Australian film industry and into Hollywood. This would end his first period in the business and into one where his filmmaking preferences would be tested against the commercial wishes of the studios.