Welcome to Season 2 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim.
This is our second episode on a theme we call “Covering the Revolution” – a subgenre of films popular in the 80s in which the focus is Western journalists thrown into the chaos of “Third World” revolutions. These men, mostly, are unorthodox, ambitious, arrogant, but usually good-hearted professionals who want to bring truth to an ignorant audience and force some measure of accountability on indifferent governments. Last episode we covered revolutions in Central America and discussed Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986) and a film directed by Roger Spottiswoode called Under Fire (1983).
Today we are going East and breaking down two more movies that came out in the early 1980s that feature journalists and revolution. We have Australian director Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) and the unforgettable docudrama The Killing Fields, directed by Roland Joffe, which came out in 1984. The Year of Living Dangerously is based on a novel, but it recreates Indonesia’s descent into revolution and genocide in the mid-1960s very well. And The Killing Fields centers on the real-life ordeal of Dith Pran, Cambodian journalist and interpreter for New York Times journalist Sydney Schamberg. The film shows us the horrors of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975 through 1979.
As we noted in episode four, Viva La Revolucion!, journalism is used as a tool by which moviemakers can bring the white, Western gaze to bear on the complex histories of revolutions in countries caught in the middle of the bipolar Cold World order. We see that in The Year of Living Dangerously, although there are scant few Americans on screen, and of course, The Killing Fields is the result of the American colossus unleashed in Southeast Asia in the 60s and 70s.
In this episode, we’ll be revisiting 2 lies we covered last time that often underpin historical narratives – that journalists are heroic idealists and that what they write can change the course of history. We’re not asserting that this is always untrue. But in films, and in history books, journalists exposing truths are usually portrayed as selfless, rather than professionally driven. And, more importantly, the impact of the revelations they sometimes provide, can be overstated. After all, history doesn’t record the 1000 times a journalist publishes and nothing changes. We only remember the rare time, like Watergate, when their investigations actually do result in some sort of action.
The third lie is specific to these episodes and it’s more a sin of omission than of action. We talked last time about how complex stories of global geopolitics get simplified to fit into 2 hours of coherent storytelling and that curious journalists trying to make sense of it all are used as the stand in for the audience. But what also often gets lost in the simplifying process is the long-term impact of Western imperialism, centuries of it. Particularly in the case of stories about revolution or counter-revolution.
When the story just opens with the revolution, the reasons for it are treated as forces of nature, or just black or brown people behaving emotionally and destructively. The legacies of imperial exploitation and colonial oppression – in other words, the real causes of most revolts and uprisings – are left unaddressed or, at worst, even unmentioned.
We named our episode after a quote by Kumar, a character in The Year of Living Dangerously, who summed up this frustration with imperial attitudes ruining Indonesia. “Westerners don’t have answers anymore.” And a key reason why we’ve chosen both these films is their admirable attempts to properly imbed the root causes into the story, and the ways in which they still manage to decenter the lives and motivations of the actual revolutionaries.
As always, let’s begin by recapping our films. And you know what? These movies are almost 40 years old so get over your spoiler alerts . . .
Let’s begin with a film by one of my favorite directors, The Year of Living Dangerously. Peter Weir is certainly no stranger to taking on historical topics using a critical lens. Weir was crucial to the Australian New Wave movement and directed the epic historical drama Gallipoli a year before The Year of Living Dangerously. His other celebrated historical film is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003).
A less appreciated film, but critically acclaimed is The Way Back (2010). It’s based on the memoir of a Polish POW who escaped the Soviet Gulag and walked 4,000 miles home. Weir has an impressive filmography, including Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Dead Poets Society, and The Truman Show. The Year of Living Dangerously was written by Weir and David Williamson. The screenplay adapts the novel by Christopher Koch.
The cast is superb, starting with two of the most beautiful people to ever appear on screen – Sigourney Weaver as British embassy official Jill Bryant and Mel Gibson as Australian journalist Guy Hamilton. But the most impressive performance belongs to Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan, a photographer and local contact for Hamilton. Hunt won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, but we both think the role was more than supporting.
The rest of the cast is great as well. Michael Murphy is a positively loathsome American journalist, Bembel Roco is Kumar, an Indonesian working for the Australian Broadcasting Service and a secret communist party member, and Bill Kerr is Colonel Henderson, the British military attache.
The Year of Living Dangerously begins with the arrival of Guy Hamilton in Jakarta in June 1965 amid increasing tensions between the longtime nationalist leader of Indonesia, President Sukarno, a growing Communist opposition, and a conservative, mostly Muslim military. Guy joins a jaded and cliquish journalist community, but he’s a neophyte who needs the help of Billy Kwan, the Chinese-Australian in house expert on all things Indonesian. Kwan is also the self-appointed moral conscience of the mostly vapid and drunken group of Western journalists competing for any scrap of news or access to the regime, or its opponents. But Billy sees something in Guy and helps him get a few good breaks.
This is a great clip for revealing Billy’s perspective on journalism as something more than reporting and Guy’s rather indifferent Western mentality.
Billy loves the people he reports on, and really knows them. Guy is trained to, as he says, “not get involved.”
Billy introduces Guy to Jill Bryant, who is clearly British intelligence, but poses as the aid to the military attache, Colonel Henderson – the most British of the British old guard colonialists. Billy is an elaborate matchmaker, guiding his two favorite people together, although Jill’s time in Indonesia is coming to an end. Guy and Jill do hook up and its explosive, as you might expect, but Guy is still an ambitious journalist willing to do anything for a scoop.
The big break comes when Jill informs Guy that the Chinese are arming the PKI, the Communist Party of Indonesia, which is sure to spark a bloody rebellion. Jill told Guy to save his life, but he intends to break the story and ruin Jill in the process. Billy and June are both heartbroken and cut him off, leaving Guy to fall in with the worst of the worst – the American journalist Pete Curtis. Kumar, Guy’s driver and assistant sticks with him too, but to open his eyes to government oppression, starvation, and crushing poverty.
Billy, who cares deeply about the people of Jakarta and has never been able to separate his job from his soul, suffers a breakdown when a child he cared for dies from starvation. Outraged, Billy turns on Sukarno, who he once admired as an anti-colonial figure, and hangs a sign outside Guy’s hotel room reading “Sukarno feed your people.” For this simple act, Billy is thrown off the balcony by police. Guy stumbles upon the scene and he and Jill reconcile over their shared sorrow.
Let’s play a clip of Billy confronting Pete Curtis and a British journalist moments before he takes the fatal step of openly opposing Sukarno.
You can sense Billy’s moral outrage at his profession, the profiting off of human misery. And did you catch the reporter’s contempt for the Indonesians?
Meanwhile, Indonesia collapses as Sukarno is ousted and the military takes over, executing thousands of suspected communists. Guy throws himself into the middle of the chaos and is badly beaten, limping off to Billy’s bungalow. Guy realizes the only thing he wants is Jill, not a story, so he has Kumar drive him to the airport before it closes. Guy is forced to make the choice – keep his recordings or board the plane with Jill. Leaving his bags at inspection, Guy barely makes it, embracing Jill on the tarmac. Tellingly, Kumar is left to live with the consequences of the bloody civil war to come.
The Killing Fields came out a few years later (1984) and I think you agree, deserved its critical success, including seven Oscar nominations and three wins for editing, cinematography and most notably – Best Supporting Actor for Haing S. Ngor. The Killing Fields won 8 BAFTA awards, including Best Film. The film was directed by British director Roland Joffe, who also directed The Mission, The Scarlet Letter, and Fat Man and Little Boy, a film starring Paul Newman about the Manhattan Project. Bruce Robinson adapted this true story for the screen.
The cast is wonderful, especially Haing Ngor as Dith Pran, the Cambodian translator and journalist who endured nearly four years of Hell in a Khmer Rouge camp. Ngor was a doctor and this was his first acting role. He was cast because he lived this experience, too, surviving three camps by virtue of his medical expertise. Like Pran, Ngor escaped and made his way to a Red Cross refugee camp. Sam Waterston plays Sydney Schanberg, Pulitzer prize winning journalist for the New York Times who relies on Dith Pran for access to the stories that put his name on the front page. While Waterston and Ngor are the focus, there is a great supporting cast. John Malkovich is photojournalist Al Rockoff, also a real person; Julian Sands plays British journalist Jon Swain; Craig T. Nelson, Coach!, plays an American military advisor to perfection; and Spalding Gray – the terrific writer, actor, just all around talent – is the US Consul in Cambodia.
The Killing Fields begins in May 1973, a few years after Richard Nixon unofficially expanded the Vietnam War into Cambodia, destabilizing the country and enabling the communist insurgent group Khmer Rouge to mount a successful campaign in the countryside. Sydney Schanberg arrives in Phnom Penh and immediately demonstrates his tendency to be an impatient prima donna, snapping at his immensely talented interpreter and journalist in his own right – Dith Pran.
Pran takes Sydney to see the bloody aftermath of a B-52 bombing in a nearby town, breaking the embargo put in place by the American military attache. We immediately see how US dissembling and indifference to the fate of Cambodia is fueling the tragedy to come. We also see that Sydney, kind of like Guy Hamilton, is driven by ego and a very jaded view of his profession.
Pran and Sydney begin to sense the escalating danger posed by the Khmer Rouge, witnessing executions of rebels, which seems to be a constant in the four journalist-centric films we’ve covered these last two episodes. The film jumps ahead to 1975 when the Khmer Rouge are right outside the capital and embassies are evacuating. At this moment it is clear Pran and his family are in danger, and while Sydney secures safe passage for his family, Pran is devoted to both his profession and to Sydney personally.
It has to be said Sydney seems to guilt Pran into staying as well since they are on the brink of another big headline. Soon after that decision Pran and a few Western journalists are captured by Khmer Rouge and face certain execution. Only Pran’s fast thinking saves them and everyone retreats to the French embassy, the last one still open. It’s funny, you see even the poor Soviets are manhandled by the Khmer Rouge as they join their Western colleagues.
The scenes inside the embassy compound are harrowing because everyone knows Pran is a dead man as soon as they leave. The Khmer Rouge demand all Cambodians be handed over, and the French ambassador complies. Pran’s friends try to forge a passport, but the deception fails and we see Pran disappear in the mass of Cambodians marched out of the capitol into an uncertain fate in the countryside.
We flash forward a few months where Sydney is back in New York, desperately searching for Pran and caring for his family in San Francisco. Pran is in Hell, enduring the full effect of the Khmer Rouge’s insane dystopian vision called “Year Zero.” All intellectuals, urbanites, anyone with a hint of Westernization are executed or worked to death. Sometimes, just having insufficiently rough hands from labor results in execution. Your fate is decided by a preteen since the young are pure.
To get at Pran’s internal life during this period, the screenwriter has him composing letters to Sidney in his head. Here we hear him describing who he must be in order to survive.
Pran pretends to be a simple peasant, but he knows this can’t last forever so he escapes. In a truly horrible scene, Pran stumbles across the killing fields – acres of human skeletons. This is a small fraction of the 2 million murdered in just a few years of Khmer rule.
Cut back to New York where Sydney is reaping the benefits of his and Pran’s work, winning the Pulitzer for his coverage. Sydney is clearly haunted by guilt and regret, but uses his speech to castigate American foreign policy in the region. You get a sense his moral outrage is partly fueled by intense personal guilt for pressuring Pran to stay and do the work responsible for this award.
Al Rockoff is there to remind him they could have gotten Pran out sooner. Meanwhile, Pran is captured and sent to another camp, this time run by a man who senses he is something more than a peasant. Pran is not punished, however, because the commander is worried the coming war with Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge’s tendency to purge its own endangers his son. He hands his son over to Pran and directs him to the Thai border. The young boy is killed by a landmine, but Pran makes it to the border and news of his escape reaches Sydney. The film ends with the two reunited in October 1979. Sydney tearfully asks Pran if he forgives him. Always beyond decent, Pran said there’s nothing to forgive.
So, lets revisit our lies agreed upon for this episode and review some of the historical context.
The first lie is about the persistent, and often pernicious myth of heroic journalism. I think The Year of Living Dangerously is pretty good about exploding that myth. Guy Hamilton is never heroic as a journalist, just finally true to himself by getting on a plane with Sigourney Weaver. The rest of the press corps in the film, aside from Billy, is degenerate and worthless. The Killing Fields is honest about demystifying Sydney Schanberg, who is talented and empathetic (in his own Western way), but still vain and ambitious. Pran is pretty heroic, but not because he’s a journalist.
The second lie is that the Western readership cares what foreign correspondents report and so the government is held accountable for their foreign policy actions. We get no sense of this in The Year of Living Dangerously. We heard Billy Kwan’s idealistic vision of what journalism can do to shine a light on poverty and corruption, but Guy wanted scoops to build a career. And Australia may have been complicit in Indonesia to a degree, but nothing Guy reports will change events on the ground. Indonesia is just another domino to fall and that’s how it gets reported.
The Killing Fields is different. Good reporting exposed not only the “secret war” in Cambodia and the criminally stupid policies that gave us Vietnam a few years before that, but obviously Watergate too. Sydney Schanberg is living through the Golden Age of journalism and while he is part of it, deservedly, we see how the sausage is made. It sometimes means leaning so hard on your local talent, like Pran, that they fall over and become casualties in the quest for relevance (and nice awards).
The third lie, or theme as we agreed to describe it, is about imperialism and revolutions, specifically in this Asian context. Here is where we have to dig deeper into the historical context. If you’re like me, I had to do a little background reading on Indonesia in the 1960s to get the full picture behind the collapse of the Sukarno regime and the bloody civil war to come. Sukarno was initially a hero to Indonesia, fighting Dutch colonialism and then Japanese occupation before emerging as the first president of Indonesia. Initially an advocate for democracy, Sukarno became increasingly autocratic and crafted a policy in 1959 called Guided Democracy to suppress instability and simmering ethnic and religious conflicts.
Sukarno pushed Indonesia to the left, providing cover for the PKI and aligning the nation with the Soviet Union and China. Worse, as the film shows, basic needs were not being met and reactionary forces – the military and the Islamists – saw an opportunity to remove Sukarno and liquidate the PKI in one fell swoop. This is the background of the film, which culminates in the 30th September Movement when generals mounted a coup. It failed to remove Sukarno at first, but by 1967 the generals were in charge and the PKI was massacred. The new leader, Suharto, was a dictator for the right, remaining in power until 1998.
The Killing Fields is probably more familiar, but I think most of the coverage about Cambodia concerns the US role in enabling the Khmer Rouge in a gamble to win a more favorable outcome in Vietnam. What I like about The Killing Fields is, for once, we actually get some sense of who the Khmer Rouge were, what they believed, and how horrific life was under their short but genocidal rein. It actually made me ever angrier about US foreign policy because we made it happen! They filled a void we created instituted the most total of total revolutions we can possibly imagine.
The film attempts to give us some background to what brought the Khmer Rouge to power in the first place – the US’ invasion of Cambodia along the border of South Vietnam and indiscriminate bombing of supposed Viet Cong staging points inside Cambodia. Schamberg is safely ensconced in his Manhattan apartment in 1978 watching footage on what had to be one of the first VCRs evern. He grimaces as Nixon, in what became known as the Nixon Doctrine, offers vague commitments to aid “our Asian democratic friends.” The speech is from April 30, 1970. Here Nixon announces incursions into Cambodia:
It’s also worth noting this speech sparked nationwide protests and the Kent State massacre just 5 days later.
The Killing Fields gives us this insight through Dith Pran’s ordeal. Angka, or the party, wanted to imitate China’s Great Leap Forward, which was also bloody and oppressive, but faster. Also, the Khmer Rouge wanted racial purity, which meant targeting those with Vietnamese or Chinese backgrounds. Depopulating the cities and reducing the country to an agrarian utopia is graphically portrayed on screen. The Cambodian Genocide left 2 million dead, nearly a quarter of the population. As we see in the film’s closing moments, only a Vietnamese invasion ends the Khmer Rouge and establishes a “normal” communist government.
So, both events at the center of our films this episode are linked to imperial legacies and we think the journalists populating The Killing Fields and The Year of Living Dangerously reflect this legacy as well. Billy Kwan is adept at forcing the pool of western reporters to confront this fact, which is why he is so heartbroken when Guy doesn’t live up to his expectations. Billy saw Guy as a kindred spirit, but the lure of being the detached voyeur overcame his humanitarian impulse, at least at first.
And Sidney does care, but he is imperious with Pran, seeing him and all Cambodians as vehicles for “the story”.
I think we have to find out what the real Dith Pran and Sydney Schanberg thought about The Killing Fields. The film came out only 5 years after Pran’s escape and both were still working for the New York Times. Here they are speaking with Bobbie Wygant in 1984. The first clip is Schanberg acknowledging what we’ve noted already – he doesn’t come off great.
I like what he said about on screen people overwhelm events and in life events overwhelm people.
Dith Pran relates how difficult it was for his children to see the film. Remember, they were very little when evacuated.
At this point we should probably tell you that we recorded this episode in two separate sessions. Normally we don’t, but when we originally recorded in late July 2021 no one outside of the intelligence community could have anticipated how quickly the corrupt and fragile regime in Afghanistan would fall to the Taliban.
We were treated to harrowing stories of desperate Afghanis with ties to US forces, and of course thousands of women and girls fearful for their lives and futures in a Taliban state attempting to flee the country. I’m sure many of us saw or circulated the photos comparing the last chopper in Saigon from April 1975 and the chopper in Kabul, also hovering over the US embassy. It seems things have come full circle.
As I watched this story unfold over hours, I thought about the scene in the Killing Fields with the Westerners holed up in the French embassy trying to help Dith Pran evade capture. How many Afghanis were in this position? Also, did we learn anything? Without debating the proper use of force after 2001 vs. the wholly disastrous and criminal invasion of Cambodia in 1970, the imperial conceit behind both seems clear. Propping up weak, corrupt, and unpopular regimes with foreign money and aid is a losing proposition. Our two films chronicle two separate examples of this, one in 1965 and the other in 1975.
But, what about the early 1980s, when our two films were released? The Cold War was jumpstarted by Reagan’s election, as we know, and while this was certainly the context for the politics associated with our films from episode 4 – Salvador and Under Fire – we can see this new and dangerous Cold War episode play out in The Year of Living Dangerously and The Killing Fields.
Moreover, as we teased earlier, this period of the early 1980s is one of imperial nostalgia. Reagan and his fellow conservative partner in the UK, Margaret Thatcher, happily touted relationships with strong men and authoritarian governments willing to join them in the anti-communist crusade. Our two films are cautionary tales. They are made at the height of this period of unapologetic Cold War rhetoric, and show the terrible tragedies and injustices resulting from following this cynical policy.
We can point to a number of examples around the world in the 1980s of friendly dictators propped up by Western resources, but one close to the settings for our films this week is President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos is a lot like Suharto in Indonesia, ruling for decades with the benign consent of the West. Marcos ruled from 1965 to 1986. He embraced what he called “constitutional authoritarianism” and ruled by martial law from 1972 to 1981, and was finally deposed only after his physical decline. He waged a terrible counter-insurgency against communists, but in reality anyone opposed to him, and finally went a little too far for the West by assassinating the opposition leader Beningo Aquino in 1983.
Reagan finally distanced himself from Marcos in 1984, but only because the optics were so bad (let’s not forget Imelda Marcos’ extravagant shoe collection!) Marcos finally left when the country mutinied in the so-called Edsa Revolution February 1986 after MArcos tried to steal the most recent election from Corazon Aquino, widow of the slain opposition leader. And even then, the Marcoses were allowed to live in the lap of luxury in Hawaii. So much for consequences.
Let’s play a report from This Week with David Brinkley about this moment, because it sure reminded me of the fast-moving events depicted at the end of The YEar of Living Dangerously. And like that scenario, what happened to Marcos was a long-time coming.
Soon after this Reagan was welcoming Corazon Aquino to the Rose Garden like he wasn’t the guy who kept Marcos flush with US aid and tacit support. Ce la vie.
Remember, if Vietnam was a legacy of French imperialism and then American; and Indonesia was a legacy of Dutch imperialism, although the British characters in The Year of Living Dangerously stand in quite well; the Philippines is forever tied to American imperialism in the early 20th century. We fought a vicious war of our own in the country in the early 1900s and remained there through WWII and the entire Cold War. We still play nice with obvious lunatics like the current president, Rodrigo Duterte. China is still there, right? So, game on.
I think it is appropriate to end this section with President Biden’s remarks on the day things really fell apart in Kabul. They are instructive and demonstrate that, for all his administration’s faults in executing the withdrawal – and there were many -he at least seems to be breaking a cycle. I think it takes courage to just say – “no more”
Last episode we started a conversation on the culture of journalism, especially in ongoing crises like revolutions. Now that we’ve seen four movies made between 1981 and 86 about journalists in “Third World” revolutions, what can we say about how Hollywood portrays the men (almost always) who are dropped into these extraordinary events?
It’s worth emphasizing that we’re focused on these representations of journalists not because we just want to shit on journalists and point out that they’re human. It’s because Western democracies hold up the free press as proof of their righteousness, but only when it suits them. But governments, politicians, and the ubiquitous ‘pundits’ are happy to abandon this ideal the second the press is actually doing its job and their coverage becomes critical or inconvenient. And institutions of power work to undermine the press whenever they can through the grinding demands of the free market.