Christopher Koch’s 1978 novel of the same name, The Year of Living Dangerously (1983) was among a small group of films that came out in the early 1980’s depicting the struggles of Western journalists to document the plight of Third World nations – Under Fire (1983) in Nicaragua; The Killing Fields (1984) was set in Cambodia; and a few years later Salvador (1986) came out with an unflinching portrayal of the volatile conditions in El Salvador. The Year of Living Dangerously is set in Indonesia during the attempted coup of President Sukarno by the 30 September Movement Communist party in 1965 and follows a group of foreign correspondents in Jakarta covering the increasing unrest.
The film’s title is a quote that refers to a famous Italian phrase used by Sukarno – vivere pericolosamente, meaning “living dangerously.” He borrowed the line for the title of his Indonesian Independence Day speech of 1964. Sukarno was a hero for leading his country’s independence from the Netherlands. He became the first President of Indonesia and during his reign he gave each year a name. In his 1964 speech he named the upcoming year “the year of living dangerously,” as if anticipating the increasing friction between two radical political forces: the Communists and the Muslims, both of whom were trying to overthrow his government. Sukarno also planned to cut his country’s ties with the West.
We meet Australian journalist Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) as he arrives in Jakarta on his first foreign correspondent assignment to find that his predecessor has already left without briefing him. He leaves the airport and we are immediately assaulted with the sights and sounds of the chaotic city – streets congested with cars, people and livestock – but he quickly moves through it to an air-conditioned hotel where all the western journalists hang out. It is there that he meets Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a freelance photographer that did a lot of work for Guy’s predecessor. He takes Guy on a guided tour of the slums of Jakarta to show him how most of the country lives and to gain his confidence. Billy also does this so that Guy doesn’t see the country like other journalists, namely Pete Curtis (Michael Murphy), a correspondent for the Washington Post.
Director Peter Weir is careful to make the distinction between Guy and Curtis (and the other seasoned journalists) and how the former looks at the way the latter delights in the humiliation of the locals with disgust. Guy is young enough not be jaded like Curtis and Billy recognizes this, which is why he latches onto Guy. Billy believes that he can influence Guy to write articles that tell the real story of the Indonesian people and perhaps make a difference. For example, there’s an intensely visceral scene where Billy and Guy cover a protest outside the American embassy by the Communist Party. What starts off as a peaceful march quickly turns ugly as the protestors throw rocks with Billy and Guy stuck in the middle of the angry mob. Once their car gets surrounded, you really start to fear for their lives as the danger they’re in is palpable. Weir does a good job conveying their peril by showing the chaotic masses swirling around their car.
Billy introduces Guy to Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), the assistant to the British military attaché, and who plans to leave for London in three weeks. Her introduction provides occasional moments of levity, like when she, Billy and Guy attend a house party and everyone dances to Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On.” We see the initial attraction between Jill and Guy emerges through the looks they occasionally give each other. The next day, she drops by his office looking for Billy and he offers to drive her to the photographer’s place and wait for him. Jill is very much Guy’s intellectual equal, good-naturedly criticizing one of his articles as being too melodramatic. She ends up accompanying him on an assignment and at one point they end up getting caught in the rain. He charms her with his willingness to look silly and make her laugh. They share a brief, meaningful look that shows how their attraction towards one another is growing. There is a loose, improvisational feel to this scene as it really seems like the actors are in the moment, which only enhances the chemistry between their characters.
Weir never lets the love story overshadow the political one as Guy finds out from Jill that the Communists are planning to overthrow Sukarno’s government and he tries to figure out how they’re going to get weapons into the country. She told him in confidence and he plans to use it in his article, which, of course, puts a strain on their relationship. Even though I know how the film ends, every time I watch it I still get caught up in the tension of Guy’s race to escape the country as it descends into chaos. Weir ratchets up the pressure so that it is almost tangible and you really fear for Guy’s life.
Made early on in his career, Mel Gibson is well-cast as Guy Hamilton, a young journalist on his first big assignment. The actor manages to portray someone who is smart but inexperienced – a basically decent guy that makes mistakes but tries to do the right thing. Over the course of the film we watch as Guy learns on the job and also falls in love with someone probably for the first time. Gibson wisely doesn’t play his character as a wide-eyed innocent – just someone who hasn’t seen much of the world. He isn’t afraid to play a flawed character and still find admirable qualities within him – perhaps even a hint of redemption.
Sigourney Weaver probably wouldn’t be your first choice to play a British woman but she quickly makes you forget that and focus on her behavior and how she carries herself. Weaver is one of those rare actresses that can convey intelligence while being an undeniable beauty. Jill knows that what she’s doing probably won’t last but is compelled by her emotions to get involved with Guy anyway. Weaver is also able to effortlessly convey a complex range of emotions simply through facial expressions, like when Jill wanders through a marketplace in the rain and it looks like she’s contemplating her relationship with Guy and we see how it impacts her, motivating what she does in the next scene. Jill has a complicated relationship with Guy that is brought together by political conflict and is also threatened by it.
The chemistry between Gibson and Weaver is incredible as they do a fantastic job of depicting a brief, yet intense love affair amidst a volatile situation. Weir develops Jill and Guy’s relationship gradually and realistically. They don’t automatically fall in love but get to know each other by hanging out. It’s a classic scenario of a doomed relationship that can’t last but they go for it anyway because the attraction between them is undeniable. You feel the want and desire between them in the way they look at each other and through their body language. The country’s volatility can create a kind of vulnerability between two people and this is the case with Jill and Guy. They are brought together by the volatility of the situation. The two of them know that they have very little time to be together but can’t deny their intense attraction to each other.
A friend of director Peter Weir’s recommended he read Christopher Koch’s novel The Year of Living Dangerously but its political content held no interest form him and he delayed reading it for months. Weir finally did read it and was so taken with what Koch had written that he immediately bought the film rights. Weir was particularly impressed with the character of Billy Kwan and felt that he was the heart of the novel, “the figure around whom the novel is constructed.” The director was already intrigued by Indonesia as his favorite vacation spot was Bali: “I had in my mind all the smells and sounds of an Indonesian street or market, the mysteries there had always appealed to me.”
Weir co-wrote the screenplay with Koch and David Williamson, an acclaimed Australian playwright who had worked with the director previously on Gallipoli (1981). While working on it, Weir began to appreciate the story’s politics for the first time: “I began to see how the political atmosphere is acting upon the characters, and how the larger politics and the politics of the personal are inextricably locked together.” He was also careful to achieve a balance and it took many drafts to achieve it. Weir admitted to having a “bumpy” relationship with Koch because he told the author he was going to “attempt to make this into a good film. He took that for doubt or uncertainty on my part, whereas it was really just being honest.”
The Year of Living Dangerously was in development when Weir got the offer to make Gallipoli and so the project was put aside while he did that one. While making Gallipoli with Mel Gibson, Weir knew that he wanted to cast him in his next film. After they made a deal for The Year of Living Dangerously, Mad Max (1979) came out and Gibson became an international movie star. After casting Sigourney Weaver, it took months for Weir to find someone to play the pivotal role of Billy Kwan.
Gibson and Weaver had very different working methods but they didn’t break the ice until the rain scene in the car. For the sequence, they were drenched by fire hoses with the car portion shot in Sydney on a very cold night. Gibson said about his romantic scenes with Weaver, “That kind of thing is always a touchy area with actors, I would think. Or maybe it’s just me. But I think we managed to get a few sparks going.” Weir was more worried about these scenes then the violent crowd scenes that employed thousands of extras. Gibson remembered, “We unloaded truckloads of rocks and things and told those young blokes, ‘Hurl these rocks through the windows. We’ll be down here with the cameras.’ You could yell, ‘Cut! Cut!’ but it didn’t stop the fight.”
Due to the controversial politics of the film, Weir did not consider filming in Indonesia and instead picked the Philippines. However, the production ran into trouble there. Four weeks into a scheduled six weeks of filming in the spring of 1982, the cast and crew began receiving written and telephoned death threats from Muslim extremists that feared the film would be anti-Muslim. Airing on the side of caution, the production left the country and finished filming in Sydney, Australia. At the time, Gibson downplayed these threats: "It wasn't really that bad. We got a lot of death threats to be sure, but I just assumed that when there are so many, it must mean nothing is really going to happen. I mean, if they meant to kill us, why send a note?"
The Year of Living Dangerously received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and called it, “a wonderfully complex film about personalities more than events, and we really share the feeling of living in that place, at that time.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised Linda Hunt’s performance: “Not exactly dominating these performances, but providing the film with its dramatic center, is Miss Hunt's haunted Billy Kwan, who keeps detailed files on everyone he loves, weeps at the purity of the voice of Kiri Te Kanawa and, when the chips are down, is capable of the film's single grand gesture.” However, the Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “It's unlikely that anyone who sees The Year of Living Dangerously will ever forget Hunt's performance or Weir's orchestration of a foreboding atmosphere. Still, there's no particular reason why these marvelous aspects couldn't be coordinated with the story in an organic way, so that Billy's character, the characters of the lovers and the ominous intimations all paid off in coherent dramatic terms.” Newsweek found the film to be “an annoying failure because it fritters away so many rich opportunities.”
At one point in The Year of Living Dangerously, Billy says, “What then must we do?” This is also the question that the film asks not only of its protagonist but also of its audience. Don’t waste the rest of your life asking this question – do something. It’s all fine and good to become interested in important causes but will you step up and take an active role in something you believe in? Weir avoids delivering a preachy, statement-driven film by expertly balancing a love story with political unrest in a foreign land and how they become intertwined. He makes the politics personal by showing how they impact the characters. It all comes back to Billy’s rather poignant question – “What then must we do?”