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The Killing Fields (1984)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“Every so often, there is a film that is destined to be talked about and remembered for years to come.”

That tagline could fit many movies. However, it truly does fit this one which tells the story of a man's struggle to escape the Cambodian holocaust. However, it covers more ground than that valuable tale. It also tells of a friendship and professional relationship between two men. In addition, the movie shows the role that journalism can play in exposing the wrongdoing of the State. Part of the subject matter of this film: war and genocide, may make it unsuitable for many young children or the faint of heart. However, the power of its statement relies on those subjects.

Like some other films, this movie does not easily lend itself to giving a slice of early action to introduce the storyline and major characters. In many ways this movie sews several stories together and presents them as one piece, held together by the two main characters. Common historical knowledge (perhaps an oxymoron?) should provide much of the movie background.

During the era of the Vietnam War, Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) covered events in Cambodia for The New York Times. Based in Phnom Penh, Schanberg worked with Cambodian Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor, in his first portrayal, won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role), as well as other journalists from many news agencies. The movie shows how Pran's assistance in coverage of events — for example, Nixon's bombing of Cambodia, shown early in the film — was essential to Schanberg later winning the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.

The film also shows how journalists — before the era of “embedding” — once gave perceptive and revealing coverage of America's interventionist actions around the globe. Journalists can often fill a special adversarial role to government. In this movie, the American military and political establishment seldom have much actual face time, except when the Vietnam war spills into Cambodia. American military involvement shows first with the spreading of aerial bombardment. When Schanberg and Pran try to cover that story, Military Attache Major Reeves (Craig T. Nelson) attempts to thwart them. While the representative of the US Dept. of State (Spalding Gray) occasionally shows some decency, he also safely leaves in a helicopter when the State Department abandons the US embassy in Phnom Penh. Dith Pran's wife and children also leave, but Pran stays with Schanberg, photographer 'Al' Rockoff (John Malkovich), Jon Swain (Julian Sands) and many of the other journalists.

Eventually, through Pran's efforts pleading with the invading Khmer Rouge, a small group of journalists makes its way to the French embassy where they have temporary shelter. The Khmer Rouge both suppress news coverage and kill — as collaborators — many of the Cambodians in Phnom Penh. However, they eventually decide that those foreign journalists with proper passports showing their status as citizens of another nation may leave. Dith Pran has no papers. Rockoff, Swain and Schanberg work to produce papers for him, but their efforts fail leaving Pran to face what happens in Cambodia.

Like The Pianist, this movie shows genocidal events mainly from a single survivor's point of view. It also has deep insight into the events which brought the Cambodian holocaust. Schanberg's Pulitzer acceptance speech in the film gives a summary, but the entire movie carries the message better.

The Killing Fields shows war and its consequences in a way that makes seeing the connections hard to avoid. It pulls no punches. Although not always a pleasant film to watch, I still give this movie a very high recommendation.

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