Balibo -- Film Review


Bottom Line: A powerful dramatization of the 1970s shooting of five frontline Aussie journalists.

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SYDNEY -- Expertly crafted for maximum impact, the fact-based political thriller "Balibo" throbs with an anger and a passion rarely seen in recent Australian cinema. Following a flurry of introspective family dramas, Robert Connolly ("The Bank," "Three Dollars") has made a pluckily unambivalent film that confronts big-picture geopolitics, managing to be vigorously entertaining even as it rails against a past wartime injustice.

The fact that this wrong -- the shooting of five Australian journalists by invading Indonesian forces -- was perpetrated more than three decades ago in a tiny, under-the-radar nation called East Timor lessens the power of the film not a bit. The urgent drama of the storytelling should broaden its appeal beyond Australian shores, where it has posted solid boxoffice after winning a number of local festival awards.

"Balibo" is gripping from the getgo, anchored by two riveting central performances. Cuban-American actor Oscar Isaac is superb as Jose Ramos-Horta, the assertive young East Timorese politico who travels to Australia to convince has-been war correspondent Roger East (an excellent Anthony LaPaglia) to run the government's news agency.

East is cynical about his ability to make a difference to the troubled island nation. But the reporter in him is roused by the news that five Aussies have gone missing while chasing the story of an imminent incursion by the Indonesian army in the border village of Balibo.

Soon he's on the trail of the so-called Balibo Five -- young, super-ambitious television journalists who we come to know and care about through an interlacing storyline tracing their final days.

Contrary to the official Australian government line that the men died in crossfire, Connolly and co-writer David Williamson draw on Jill Jolliffe's book "Cover-Up" and the findings of a 2007 inquest to recreate in bone-chilling detail the execution of the journalists by the Indonesian military.

This sequence, along with a scorching scene in which East and Ramos-Horta stumble upon the aftermath of a village massacre, applies a well-aimed boot to the collective rear of an Australian administration that turned a blind eye to the brutalities.

Connolly makes a conscious choice to avoid any explicit accusations, preferring to stir outrage via the increasingly fierce indignation of East. The old-dog reporter's journey from disinterested outsider to impassioned idealist willing to risk his life to make public the Timorese plight forms the backbone of this commanding film.

While Connolly's palpable rage sometimes veers into overkill, he is to be commended for making an historical Australian drama which harks back to the glory days of "Gallipoli," "Breaker Morant" and "The Year of Living Dangerously."

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Screen Australia, Arenafilm, Cinimod Films and Last Straw Prods.
Sales: Content International, London
Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Oscar Isaac, Damon Gameau, Gyton Grantley, Mark Winter
Director: Robert Connolly
Screenwriters: Robert Connolly, David Williamson
Executive producers: Andrew Barlow, Anthony LaPaglia, Andrew Myer, Paul Wiegard
Producers: John Maynard, Rebecca Williamson
Director of photography: Tristan Milani
Production designer: Robert Cousins
Costume design: Cappi Ireland
Music: Lisa Gerrard
Editor: Nick Meyers
No rating, 111 minutes