Review Written by: Bill Slocum
Directed by: Roland Joffe
Written by: Bruce Robinson
Produced by: David Puttnam
Starring: Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich, Craig T. Nelson, Spalding Gray, Julian Sands, Bill Paterson
Buy it!, Buy it, rent it or skip it: Buy it
Oh, this brings me back alright. It was the last days of 1984 and earnest college students like me had much to talk about. Wasn't it wonderful that Walter Mondale had chosen a strong woman like Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate and wouldn't the Democrats sweep the Northeast at least for that brave move? Does buying a Coke at the local convenience store signal support for the apartheid government in South Africa? Did anyone else see that amazing film about the human price of American involvement in Southeast Asia? It's nearly 20 years later, and I've managed to shake the ill effects of my youthful liberalism easily enough in most cases. This film, however, packs the kind of punch that isn't explained away by political trendiness.
The Killing Fields
is a great film that tries and succeeds in capturing much of the carnage and tragedy of Cambodia as the radicalized Khmer Rouge and the U.S.-backed regime of Lon Nol controlling Phnom Penh clash in a fight to the death to be or to not be the next domino in the Communist rollover in Southeast Asia. By particularising the conflict to that of the true-life relationship of two men, New York Times reporter Syndey Schanberg and his Cambodian apprentice and aide-de-camp Dith Pran, the film forces a level of empathy that is at once uncomfortable and absorbing. It is possible to walk away from this film hating the manipulation, the America-bashing, the easy liberal guilt. But it's impossible to walk away from the human experience borne witness to before the movie's done, if one has any pretense of being human, and that's its great strength.
Oh, it's polemical alright. We hear comments about how the Khmer Rouge's excesses were the direct result of Nixon's secret bombing campaign. (U.S. Counsel: "After what the Khmer Rouge have been through, I don't think they'll be exactly affectionate toward Westerners." Schanberg: "Maybe we underestimated the anger $7 billion in bombing would unleash.") It makes its point, absolves Pol Pot and condemns Kissinger with the same broad brush and it feels a bit jaded and hollow for that, but I don't know. Schanberg betrays the attitudes of a knee-jerk liberal and I outgrew that and maybe I feel superior for that, but Schanberg had AK-47s pointed at his head by 12-year-old brainwashed boys and I didn't, so shut up already, know what I mean?
The performances are incredible in their verisimilitude, particularly the leads. Sam Waterson burns with righteous anger as Schanberg and I like his performance for what it is and how he creates that extra level of tension, but he's a butterfly compared to the condor that's Dr. Haing S. Ngor, one of the Academy's most obscure best supporting actor recipients (there was even a joke about it in an episode of The Simpsons
) but someone who didn't just walk the walk. He relived his experience surviving a holocaust that was, per square mile, even more savage than the Holocaust itself. The fact he won a Best Supporting Actor award (Waterson instead was nominated for Best Actor and lost to F. Murray Abraham for Amadeus
) is one of those perversities of film history, given he carries more of the film than Waterson (who slinks to the background two-thirds of the way in) but also that he personalizes the story in a way that makes the incomprehensible immediate and involving.
We lost Ngor to a senseless murder a few years ago and have little left to explain what was going through his mind as he relived an experience that cost him his wife and child when he actually lived through it. Roland Joffe does a nice job in the DVD commentary, though, a commentary I put up there with P. T. Anderson's Boogie Nights
and William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration
for being worth the price of the DVD and then some by itself. He recalls Ngor's reaction to one child actress whose hard face in enacting a scene convinced Ngor she wasn't just pretending to be Khmer Rouge and Ngor's request that Joffe participate in one critical scene by muttering real torments Ngor suffered at the hands of the "KR" as a way of enhancing his performance. At one point, trying to convince him to come aboard, Joffe said something about Ngor owing it to his country to bear witness to his story and that of Dith Pran and that did the trick, though Joffe seems to wonder if the same sort of manipulation Schanberg pulled on Pran wasn't going on here, too.
It's a great movie because it doesn't shy away from uncomfortable truths, because it never loses sight of the human dimension and because it gave a pretense of understanding to one of the great human traumas after World War II. We never wallow in gore, but the cost of this war is always with us while we watch. The experience is both endurable and humiliating. I just wish they reshot that ending with "Imagine." Joffe in his commentary even notes the lyrics are the sort of thing Pol Pot would have gone along with. It feels forced. Did Yoko Ono give her approval after they explained the scene her dead husband's song would appear in or after they told her the first nasty execution scene would be shot while "Band On The Run" issued forth from a soldier's radio? A great movie of an awful moment in human history. If we have any chance of overcoming man's sorry past, it will be because movies like this one get made once in a while.