A plebian premise, hard-drinking journalist falls for attractive diplomat, gets deft and mesmerizing treatment in Peter Weir’s saga of Indonesia at the time of the Sukarno upheaval (1965). Mel Gibson (at the height of his allure) is chain-smoking Guy Hamilton, a disinterested Aussie who stumbles on a story that could put him in the big leagues. His sidekick — and here’s a bit of Weir casting genius — is snide photographer Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt playing a man; magnificent), a half-Chinese midget who is part conscience incarnate, part foul-mouthed savant.
Enter British attaché Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver) as a diplomat-love interest who heightens Hamilton’s personal stakes while playing into bigger story line. The “living dangerously” of the title is a fulfilled premise because Weir’s instinctual sense of instability (“Picnic at Hanging Rock,” “The Last Wave”) seeps into the landscape. Jakarta’s confusion helps. Though Sukarno’s a hero, all’s about to go terribly wrong. Gibson and above all Hunt (Best Supporting Actress, 1984; the only time in history a woman has been awarded an Oscar for playing a man) mine this darker streak and stay with it.
Rarely has the role of foreign correspondent “fixer” — someone who knows the inside story — gotten better shape and delivery than from Hunt’s as Kwan. There’s so much cocksure Hamilton doesn’t get about Indonesia, and Weir puts the ugliness of bad times ahead of the more obvious political heroism. A great movie.