No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘The Killing Fields’

I remember renting this film from Netflix a few years ago and telling my friends what I was about to watch. I got a good dose of jaws dropping open and many of the same responses:

“Oh, that’s a fun one!”

“Go into it with a strong stomach. There are scenes in it that will pulverize you!”

“Not a fun movie!”

I remember hearing a lot about “The Killing Fields” when it was first released back in 1984, but it took me until recently to finally sit down and watch it all the way through. From a distance, it looks like another in a long line of movies about the Vietnam War and of the terrible damage it left in its wake. But in actuality, it takes place in Cambodia when the country is in the midst of a civil war with the Khmer Rouge regime; a result of the Vietnam War spilling over the country’s borders. It is based on the memoirs of award-winning American journalist Sydney Schanberg who was a correspondent for The New York Times, and of how he spent years reporting the endless fighting and bombing which took place in Cambodia and Laos. Along with photographers Jon Swain (Julian Sands) and Al Rockoff (John Malkovich), he works to capture the reality of this horrific situation as it escalates into something far worse, and before the United States military can sanitize what is being presented for public consumption.

But as much as “The Killing Fields” is about what happened in this conflict, it is really at its heart a story of friendship between Sydney and his translator, Cambodian journalist Dith Pran. Together, they work to get to the unvarnished proof of the situation and risk their lives in many instances. In the process of escaping Southeast Asia with their lives, Schanberg helps Pran’s family escape, but as the Americans get ready to leave, they are forced to give up Pran as the new regime wants all Cambodian citizens to be returned to them. This leads to a guilt ridden Schanberg spending as much time as possible searching for Pran through humanitarian services and government officials. While he does so, we watch Pran being subjected to forced labor under the “Year Zero” policy the Khmer Rouge initiated to destroy the past and start a new future.

The scene where Dith Pran stumbles upon the corpses left to rot in the Cambodian fields is where the movie gets its name, and these images will never leave my mind. In that moment, director Roland Joffé captures the vicious and evil nature of Pol Pot, Cambodia’s answer to Adolf Hitler. What happened in these fields is no different from what the Nazi’s had done to the Jews during World War II. But what’s even worse is this same kind of ethnic cleansing is still being exacted in different parts of the world today. Some might foolishly think the events of “The Killing Fields” have no real relevance to what we are suffering through today, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, with this movie, we get depressing proof of how history repeats itself.

What gives “The Killing Fields” even more emotional heft is that Haing S. Ngor, who plays Dith Pran, went through the same ordeal as did his real-life counterpart. It is impossible to watch Ngor here without knowing he shared a horrifyingly similar experience as he had to convince the soldiers he was an uneducated peasant. Had they realized Dith was really an intellectual and a reporter, he would have been killed right on the spot. Ngor was not a professional actor when he got cast, so he doesn’t act as much as provide an undeniably human face of what Cambodians were forced to endure when the Khmer Rouge came to town, and he gives what is undoubtedly one of the bravest performances I have ever see. Forget the Oscar; Ngor should have received the Purple Heart!

But as great as Ngor is, let’s not leave out the other actors whose work is every bit as good. Sam Waterston plays Sidney Schanberg, and this was long before he got involved in that long-running show with the overbearing “chung CHUNG” sound. Waterston does exceptional work capturing Schanberg’s relentless quest for truth and presenting it for all the world to see. Throughout, we see him stubbornly pursue whatever sources are available to him regardless of how it puts his life and the lives of those close to him in constant mortal danger. This later leads to a deep sense of guilt as he encouraged Dith Pran to stay with him even though he was at greater risk than anyone else in his circle. Waterston captures the complexities of a reporter who sees the importance of getting at the heart of a story as well as the large cost which becomes all too difficult to deal with.

In addition, we have John Malkovich in one of his earliest roles, and we see the unrelenting intensity he brings to Al Rockoff as he quickly recovers from an explosion which goes off right next him. Almost immediately, Malkovich jumps right back up to take as many photos as possible. Julian Sands also has one of his earliest roles here as fellow photographer Jon Swain, and this was long before he got stuck in those “Warlock” movies. Plus, you have Craig T. Nelson on board as Major Reeves, the face of the military officials who work to cover up American mistakes while maintaining whatever control they have left over an increasingly chaotic situation.

And then there is the late Spalding Gray who co-stars as the U.S. Consul, and his experience of making “The Killing Fields” ended up inspiring his one-man monologue “Swimming to Cambodia.” Hence, another career was born thanks to this movie which led to many more immensely entertaining monologues performed by him until he left us ever so tragically.

Looking back, it’s surprising to see “The Killing Fields” marked the feature film directorial debut of Roland Joffé. From watching this, I figured he had been directing motion pictures already for decades. Nothing on display here ever feels like it was staged or overly rehearsed. Joffé makes you feel like you are watching a very in-depth documentary which no one else could have pulled off, and that is saying a lot.

Joffe was also aided greatly by Director of Photography Chris Menges, who won an Oscar for his work here, as he captures a land and a time which is anything but sentimental. Composer Mike Oldfield, best known for composing and performing “Tubular Bells,” also provides an original sounding film score which heightens the horror and unrelenting chaos consuming Cambodia and those unlucky enough to be stuck there.

All these years later, “The Killing Fields” remains an immensely powerful cinematic achievement, and I wonder if people still think about it as much as they did back in the 80’s. Ngor, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (I was rooting for Pat Morita who was nominated for “The Karate Kid“), was murdered during a robbery in downtown Los Angeles outside his home in Chinatown. Knowing he survived the horrific fate which consumed and destroyed the lives of many Cambodians only to have his life cruelly ended in such an utterly senseless crime makes watching this film today seem all the more tragic.

As for Joffé, he went on to direct “The Mission” with Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons which received critical acclaim. But then he helmed the dreadfully miscalculated adaptation of “The Scarlet Letter” which changed the end of the book and added more sex to it for all the wrong reasons. Then he went on to direct “Captivity,” a movie so blatantly unwatchable I turned it off after less than 20 minutes. You look at “The Killing Fields” and then at “Captivity,” and you wonder what the heck happened to this guy.

I am really glad I finally took the time to watch “The Killing Fields” long after its original release in 1984. Even if its Best Picture montage give away the film’s ending, it did not take away from the experience of watching it. This proved to be not just a great directorial debut, but a great collaboration of artists who completely sucked you into the reality of a place and time many of us would never want to experience up close. So many years later, this is a cinematic masterpiece which forces you to experience what people go through. There’s no way to come out of “The Killing Fields” without being deeply affected by it.

I desperately tried to resist using this cliché, but I have to say it; they don’t make movies like this anymore. With Hollywood’s constant obsession with comic book and superhero movies, let alone the latest unnecessary remake, you have to wonder if we will ever see a movie like “The Killing Fields” ever again.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Nightcrawler’ is a Brilliantly and Insanely Twisted Motion Picture

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WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2014.

Just when I thought I wouldn’t see a 2014 movie as twisted as “Gone Girl,” along comes “Nightcrawler.” Delving into the underground world of Los Angeles freelance crime journalism, this is a thriller which feels like a cross between “Taxi Driver” and “Network” as it follows characters who do not hesitate to cross over any and all ethical or moral considerations in order to survive another day in an infinitely cruel and competitive world. You will find yourself laughing at things you would normally never laugh at, but that’s because it serves as a way to deal with the increasingly insane scenarios which will leave you staring at the screen with your mouth open.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Louis Bloom, an alienated young man struggling to find work anywhere and everywhere. The movie starts off with him stealing materials from a construction site which he then attempts to sell at a scrap yard with little success. His attempts to find a job or even an unpaid internship prove to be utterly fruitless despite his best efforts and conniving ways, and he is a symbol of how many Americans who are having the toughest time finding work. Then one night while he’s driving on the freeway, he comes across a nasty car accident and, like many, he is tempted to take a closer look. This is when a camera crew led by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) drops by to film whatever footage he can get to sell to the local news station. Instantly intrigued, Louis goes out and buys a cheap video camera and starts filming crime scenes and human carnage which eventually catches the eye of veteran news producer, Nina (Rene Russo).

“Nightcrawler” marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy whose writing credits include “Freejack,” “Two for the Money” and “The Bourne Legacy.” With a limited budget, he succeeds in creating a crazy version of the American success story, proving it can be achieved but at a soul sucking price. Gyllenhaal, with a stare which cuts through the audience like a laser beam, gives us a character beyond determined to rise to the top of the TV news food chain. In many ways Louis is enigmatic as we don’t get to know too much about him, but no one can deny he is a full blown sociopath who has finally found something he can make a career at.

Gyllenhaal does some of his best work yet in “Nightcrawler,” and I’m not just saying this because he lost 20 to 30 pounds to play Louis. His focus as an actor is never in doubt as he makes Louis as compelling a human being as he is an insane one. Even as Louis throws all reason out the window, we cannot help but be mesmerized as Gyllenhaal makes him a highly unlikely antihero.

It’s also great to see Russo here as well as she brings Nina to a life in a way which showcases how vulnerable her character can be despite how hardened life has made her. This is a character clinging on to her job for dear life in a business prepared to chew her up and spit her out without a second thought. It should not be a surprise she crosses countless journalistic guidelines to get the bloody violent footage her audience is craving for. Whether or not she believes it is the right thing to do is beside the point because her survival in an unforgiving economy is foremost on her mind. You can chastise Nina and Louis all you want for the choices they make in life, but like anyone else, they are driven to survive by any means necessary.

I loved the scenes between Gyllenhaal and Russo as they constantly size each other up to where they firmly believe they have the other person figured out. As Louis gets more and more successful at capturing footage others could only dream of getting, and this eventually leads to him getting better equipment and a super cool car which goes super-fast, their relationship gets increasingly tense as he makes it clear to Nina who’s in charge. Nina observes Louis with both utter fascination and disgust as he stares right through her to where she can’t help but be taken in by him.

As “Nightcrawler” hurtles towards its wonderfully insane conclusion, Louis becomes a magician of sorts as he manipulates events to where he creates news he greatly profits from. We should despise him for what he does, but Gilroy has the audience firmly in his grip to where we can’t help but admire him for the devious things he has accomplished, and that’s regardless of what happens to others in his path.

Gyllenhaal was born to play Louis just as Russo was born to portray Nina, and both actors are well served by a supporting cast which matches them from scene for scene. The always reliable Bill Paxton plays Louis’ chief competitor, Joe Loder, and he is a hoot to watch as he tries to gain the upper hand only to see things blow up in his face. Also terrific is Riz Ahmed who plays Louis’ partner in crime footage coverage, Rick, a nice guy who hasn’t lost his moral bearings but is constantly forced to go against his better judgment in order to keep his job. Ahmed does great work as he makes us sympathize with Rick even as he gets into situations he can’t quite pull himself out of.

With “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy has given us a wonderfully twisted tale which shows how the American success story can become a reality if you’re willing to lose yourself in the process. What’s brilliant about the movie is it’s filled with characters molded by the world they live in. We can berate them all we want, but their actions speak more about what society has turned them into. In a time where employment opportunities are not as plentiful as they should be, it’s a little hard to blame these characters for what they do. But when we are forced to do the same, hopefully we can do it in a way that is nowhere as life threatening. Of course, that might just be wishful thinking.

I have to end this review with this piece of dialogue Louis Bloom has as it sums up the state of the world today perfectly:

“I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. What I believe, sir, is that good things come to those that work their asses off, and that good people such as yourself, who reach the top of the mountain, didn’t just fall there. My motto is: if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Please check out the interview I did with Gyllenhaal and Russo on “Nightcrawler” which I conducted on behalf of We Got This Covered down below.

James Vanderbilt on Making His Directorial Debut with ‘Truth’

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James Vanderbilt has been a prolific writer and producer in Hollywood for several years. His screenplay credits include Peter Berg’s “The Rundown” which remains one of Dwayne Johnson’s best action films, David Fincher’s “Zodiac” which was about the notorious serial killer who terrorized San Francisco back in the 1970’s and Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down” which dealt with terrorists attacking the White House. In addition, he was a writer and producer on “The Amazing Spider-Man” movies and “Independence Day: Resurgence.”

Vanderbilt now makes his directorial debut with “Truth,” the political docudrama about the 2004 “60 Minutes” news report on George W. Bush’s military service and the subsequent controversy which came to engulf it and destroyed several careers in the process. It is based on the memoir “Truth and Duty: The Press, The President and The Privilege of Power” written by Mary Mapes, a noted American journalist who was the producer of Bush news story, and she is played by Oscar winner Cate Blanchett. The movie details meticulously the research Mapes and her team did on this story and of how many came to sharply criticize the veracity of the information given. What started out as an expose of Bush’s service, or lack thereof, in the Texas Air National Guard becomes focused solely on the reporters involved to where broadcast journalism would never be the same.

I got to sit in on a roundtable interview with Vanderbilt at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California while he was in town to promote “Truth.” His desire to adapt this memoir into a film came from his infinite curiosity about broadcast journalism and how people in a newsroom work and put a story together.

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Ben Kenber: What made you decide that the time had come for you to step behind the camera to direct?

James Vanderbilt: I don’t know. Uh, foolishness? No, I was at a film school with all these people who really, really wanted to direct, and I always wanted to be a writer. It seemed like they were all looking at screenwriting as the stepping stone for the real job and so, being an angry young film student, I was totally resentful of them. Screenwriting is a craft and it’s got a great history, so I wasn’t the guy who was like “what I really want to do is direct.” I was lucky enough to have some films made and to produce some films and work with some really great directors, and watching them was actually the thing that made me go, I’d be curious to know if I could do that” Watching directors work with actors was actually the biggest thing which was fun for me to see and wanting to be a part of that, but as the writer and producer you want there always to be one voice to the actor. You never want the producer to come in and go, “You know what would also be great?” So, I always wondered if I could do that, carry the ball all the way down the field, and it came out of a very misguided desire to see if it would even be a possibility for me and if I would enjoy it.

BK: Did you enjoy it?

JV: I really loved it. I really loved every part of the process. It was just so exciting and fun.

BK: Doubt has become such a powerful tool over the years, and it really came down hard on this particular news story when it aired on television. Were you ever worried as a writer or as a director of getting caught up in that realm of doubt to where it was hard to distinguish between both sides of the argument?

JV: I don’t know about worried. We tried to present a bunch of different arguments in the film. It was important to us and important to me that the film was, although some might characterize it as trying to prove a point, not a film that’s trying to prove a point. What I love is seeing people come out of it discussing it and arguing about it, and that’s great to me. Seeing a married couple come out of it and one of them saying absolutely she should’ve been fired, and the other one going, “What are you crazy?” Apparently, I just enjoy discordant marriages (laughs). But the goal for me first and foremost was just to tell a really interesting story about this woman and what she went through and make it an emotional story. We didn’t want it to be homework. You want it to be a real tale and an emotional story. If audiences go on that journey and then maybe if they also think a little bit about media and where we are right now, all of that would-be gravy.

Enough time has passed since this “60 Minutes” news story premiered to where we should be able to view it more objectively, and “Truth” will give audiences a lot to think about as it is not so much about whether or Mapes got the story right or not, but of how much a casualty truth can be when it comes to presidential politics and personal bias.

“Truth” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.