Movie Review: Balibo

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A semi-retired journalists traces the steps of five younger journalists who went missing during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor.

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Robert Connolly, 2009

Based on a true story, this film follows Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), a washed-up war correspondent, on his trek to Balibo, East Timor in 1975. East is living in Darwin, working on his memoirs, when he’s accosted by the handsome, charismatic José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac). Ramos-Horta is the Foreign Secretary of East Timor, and he is persistent. He manages to drag Roger to East Timor on the trail of five Australian journalists who insisted upon staying in the dangerous country even after their peers departed. The five were headed to Balibo, where the Indonesian invasion was set to take place. Cynical Roger and idealistic José struggle with each other along the trail, but as Roger is exposed to the plight of the Timorese people, he becomes more and more invested in telling their story. The danger grows as Indonesian forces encroach on more Timorese land, with foreign powers refusing to help.

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This is the latest entry into my Oscar Isaac filmography project, and it was a huge relief after the appalling Won’t Back Down and the weird In Secret. Balibo is a good movie. In fact, for a modern Australian film, it’s a great movie. It’s an interesting story about an important subject that a lot of people (read: me) don’t know a lot about. There are a few solid set pieces and some scenes that are clearly recreations of real moments, and the fictionalisations work to support them. The film wisely takes a personal perspective on the proceedings, giving us the point of view from two terrific characters in Roger East and José Ramos-Horta. Anthony LaPaglia and Oscar Isaac are both excellent in this movie. LaPaglia is all world-weary heart as the burnt out Roger East, who finds his trek through the landscape of East Timor more difficult than he initially imagined. He’s gruff, stubborn, angry, caring. Meanwhile, Isaac as Ramos-Horta is all handsome charm (seriously, he’s so pretty in this) laid over a fiery protectiveness of his country and his people. He won, and obviously deserved, an Australian Film Institute award for Best Supporting Actor for this movie. It is absolutely believable that East would follow this guy who showed up on his doorstep. They’re excellent together, too, informing the audience of the struggle that East Timor is going through while they struggle with each other’s personalities. Their swimming pool fight is blunt and brutal, a highlight of the movie. The indifference of the Australian government is a particular bugbear for Ramos-Horta.

Sadly, the biggest drawback of this movie is the filmmakers’ decision to use a double-flashback structure. While I understand the desire to frame the movie by having a Timorese woman tell her story (there are almost no women in the film, and the Guatemalan Oscar Isaac is holding up the Timorese end pretty much alone), this isn’t her story. It’s Roger East’s. It’s telling a story that this woman has no way of knowing, so it isn’t actually telling her flashback – so why have her in the movie at all? Then there’s the problem of the flashbacks to the story of the Balibo Five, which are narratively all over the place. I was never clear on the names of the five journalists (I picked up on one, but not the others), who they worked for, or what their aims were apart from “get to Balibo”. Their scenes are not set up nor integrated properly – I’d just be settling into the East storyline when suddenly there’s be a flashback, using an introductory shot of the countryside that could be set during either timeline. They also interrupted the flow of the movie, making the pacing awkward and breaking the build-up of tension. It’s a shame, because the actors playing the Five are also good. I feel like there are fairly simple fixes to these problems, too, and they could definitely clarify some of the more confusing points of the timeline of the invasion, so it’s frustrating that they aren’t used better.

Balibo on IMDb

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