The 1965 Indonesian military coup was one of the most horrific events of the second half of the twentieth century. It killed over a million Indonesians, and it ushered in the Suharto dictatorship that ruled Indonesia for 31 years. It was an event that has not gotten as much attention in the West as it should.
Peter Weir’s 1982 film, The Year of Living Dangerously is set in Indonesia in the months before the coup. Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) is an ambitious young journalist from Australia, who has just been given his first foreign correspondent assignment in Indonesia. He meets a mysterious photographer named Billy Kwan (Helen Hunt). Billy arranges for Guy to interview the head of the PKI, the Indonesian communists, a major scoop that helps Guy’s career. Billy introduces Guy to Jill (Sigourney Weaver), who is an assistant to the military attaché at the British embassy. Guy and Jill have an affair, much to the disapproval of Jill’s boss. One day, Guy learns from that there is a shipment of arms coming from China for the PKI. Over Billy’s objections, Guy decides to write a story about this, even though everyone will know that he learned about this from Jill, which will hurt her standing at the embassy.
The Year of Living Dangerously is an oddly disappointing film, one that seems to promise far more than it actually delivers. There is a sense of foreboding during much of the film, because we know about the disaster that the characters can’t see coming. And some of the scenes seem to hint that more is going on than meets the eye. Yet the Indonesian coup ends up merely serving as the backdrop to a romance between Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. There are depictions of poverty in Jakarta, and there is a scene of communists being executed by the military, but the the film is mainly about a group of wealthy Westerners. It would be interesting to see a film about the coup told from an Indonesian point-of-view.