Spy 100, #52: The Year of Living Dangerously

Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) is less steeped in spy genre convention than most of the list’s selections, and also takes us to unique territory: Indonesia in the mid-1960s, where rookie reporter Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) arrives on the scene, a correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Service. Without briefing or guidance, Hamilton’s overseas career gets off to a slow start, but when he befriends photographer Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt, in an Oscar-winning performance), his fortunes change. Not only do Kwan’s connections land him an exclusive interview with the leader of Indonesia’s rising communist movement, but Kwan also introduces him to British embassy staffer Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), who quickly becomes a love interest and source. Hamilton soon finds himself juggling friendship, love, and career ambition as his press credentials put him at ground zero for an imminent clash between communist revolutionaries and the corrupt, right-wing regime ruling the country.

While I didn’t find The Year of Living Dangerously terribly satisfying as a spy film, I did enjoy it as a political drama; in my view it sneaks onto the list sideways, based on Kwan’s secretive narration and his habit of keeping dossiers on everyone. But in general the film seems less interested in cloak-and-dagger intrigue than in the effect of its politically turbulent backdrop on the innocent masses, and the right-left, east-west cultural divide personified in its characters. As such, it’s an effective if somber film, that seems oddly out of time: part 1940s romance, part 1970s socially conscious political drama, part timeless, tragic message about power conflicts and injustice. (Unfortunately, Maurice Jarre’s synth score occasionally lurches the tone of the film awkwardly into the 1980s.)

Hunt, famously cast against gender, gives a remarkably convincing and endearing performance that anchors the film, and proves to be its heart. Weaver gives an effectively understated performance, selling what works of the love story moreso than Gibson, who is adequate but not entirely likeable as Hamilton. Overall, it’s certainly a worthwhile film for many reasons; a slightly odd fit for the list, perhaps, but also bringing some welcome variety to it.

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