The Killing Fields (1984)

killing

Starring: Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor (his first role), John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Craig T. Nelson

Director: Roland Joffe

Summary: An American journalist and his Cambodian adviser fight to survive the country’s communist takeover

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Waterston), Supporting Actor (Ngor)*, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography*, Film Editing*

This is a very visceral and gritty movie that pulls no punches and feels very authentic. A lot of this is owed to the cinematography, which is filmed in a sort of documentary-style that works really well. The authenticity is also very evident in the choice of Ngor as the co-lead, a (then) untrained actor who was actually imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge and has an obvious personal connection with the project. He is very is good, although it’s hard to say if I would have given him the Supporting Actor Oscar without seeing the other performances (that, and he’s not really supporting as he gets more screen-time overall than anyone I believe). The last thing I would say as far as realism is that it depicts journalists better than most other Hollywood films-Waterston (who is also very good) has a clear sense of detachment (at least at the beginning) from what is going on around him, which is more realistic for someone like him who has covered wars and atrocities before.

The story really takes off for me in the second half, when it shifts from a broader war story to a more personal one. Waterston’s character becomes angrier at his own government and feels guilty as he reflects on what he did and didn’t do there, and Ngor’s character has his own compelling storyline which produces some really good, high-tension scenes. The only thing that stood out to me as detracting from the film is the score by Mike Oldfield (of Tubular Bells aka the Exorcist theme fame). While it’s most fine, there are some really bizarre choices for a movie like this, to the point where it reminds me of SNES RPG Midi-style synth music. Examples: https://youtu.be/mGPiUGuWsA0; https://youtu.be/xLfyRQfHAio

Overall: In most other years this would probably won Best Picture, but alas this one of the few years this decade with multiple great nominees. Nonetheless, a strong, intense and intelligent look at one of the forgotten and most tragic outcomes of the Vietnam War.

Rating: A-

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