I began pursuing a viewing of this film after I watched Roland Joffé’s later effort The Mission with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons. I didn’t intend for today to turn into a marathon of Warner Brothers war films about imprisonment with John Malkovich as supporting actor, but that’s what happened, because I decided on using the hideous Warner snapper cases as my method of determination for what to watch today. It will change with my next film, but it was a curious pattern all the same. Malkovich, though, as the name I saw in the cast credits that drew me closer to the film, as native Cambodian Haing S. Ngor–though winner of Best Supporting Actor for this role–was an unknown quantity, and Sam Waterston I continue to identify most strongly with Law and Order, unfairly relegating him to that lower gate of “television leading man,” usually meaning a sort of rubber ceiling on dramatic acting ability–it’s passable, even believable, but not impressive.
Sam Waterston here, though, is not a prosecutor but real journalist Sydney Schanberg, accompanied by photojournalist Al Rockoff (Malkovich) and guided by Cambodian native Dith Pran. The film begins in 1973, as the United States’ involvement in Vietnam is beginning to spill over into Cambodia, though there are serious attempts to keep it secret. Schanberg and Pran sneak into the town of Neak Leung, which American forces bombed (allegedly by accident, I make no claims in support or against this, and while the film opens the door to this being a story, it does not come down hard as claiming such a thing) and attempt to document the occurrence, including the hundreds of dead and wounded civilians. The military, personified primarily by Major Reeves (Craig T. Nelson) brings in the press corps to show them a less bloody and violent version of the town so as to “sanitize” the story for the American public’s consumption.
Schanberg, Pran and Rockoff are next seen two years later in 1975, with the Khmer Rouge invading the capital, seemingly peacefully. Schanberg finds this suspicious and has arranged for the evacuation of Pran and his family, sending them off with international diplomats to the U.S. Pran, however, chooses to stay behind and help his friend Sydney to cover the events occurring in Cambodia. They are all arrested by a detachment of the Khmer Rouge, witnessing multiple executions in their custody before Pran is able to negotiate their release, leaving them to seek refuge in the French Embassy under the advice of fellow journalist Jon Swain (Julian Sands). The embassy is ordered to turn over all Cambodian civilians, with an undercurrent of threat to the lives of said natives, leaving Rockoff and Schanberg to try desperately to cobble together a fake passport for Pran in what is possibly the most tense and dramatic scene of photo development ever put to, well, film.
Pran is found out, however, and spends much of the rest of the movie experiencing what is referenced in the title of the film–the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge regime, where anyone suspected of any ties, whatsoever, to the previous government is mercilessly executed and buried in shallow mass graves.
Certainly the subject matter here is important, and nothing can be said to suggest it is not, unless it is said by a heartless, full-blooded misanthrope or racist. Being neither, my only concern or question is why events like this one and leaders like Pol Pot go seemingly unacknowledged for their atrocities when the name Hitler is reeled out as the consistent hyperbolic example of pure evil in humanity. I don’t mean to say that the acts of the Nazi government in Germany were not horrific or were “lesser,” but rather, why do we seem to feel these other events are beneath mention or remembrance–at least in comparison? There are genocides everywhere, constantly, and some of them truly horrific, yet, at least the American society I live in, seems to feel that there are only a few acts worth mentioning, and only the Germans suffer the stigma of their past, where the other countries seem not to. This puzzles me as it always has; Native Americans are barely mentioned, as are Japanese internment camps, both those made by the Japanese (as I just saw in Empire of the Sun) and the ones FOR the Japanese(-Americans) stateside–Stalin, Pol Polt, Idi Amin, so on and so forth, yet in this country it seems that only slavery and the Holocaust are to be so fully remembered. They should be remembered, without a doubt, but so should these other events. But, I digress–as always.
Joffé’s element seems to be the exploitation, enslavement and murder of indigenous peoples if these two excellent films are to be considered examples of his work, and I would certainly suggest these choices if I were him. Waterston burns with a fire and passion I didn’t know he had in this film, torn to pieces by his anger at the coverups and atrocities that surround him, as well as the guilt he feels at his inability to save his dear friend Pran. Ngor more than deserved his Oscar for his performance as Pran, pulling in our sympathies easily, conveying thoughts and feelings through a language that is not his native one, and showing subtleties even experienced actors don’t always seem to exhibit–and this was his first role! Malkovich takes on a more moral role, and a less commanding one than in Empire of the Sun and shows the strengths of his craft as always.
An excellent film, and a good, strong contender in a year of good, strong films. But then, perhaps I just like to think 1984 was a year of exceptional quality.