Film reviews

Jul 21, 2009

Balibo film review: dynamite Aussie exposé

Luke Buckmaster — Writer, Critic and The Daily Review Journalist

Luke Buckmaster

Writer, Critic and The Daily Review Journalist


Green lightDirector Robert Connolly expands his genre-hopping oeuvre from corporate thriller (The Bank) and down-and-out drama (Three Dollars) to electrifying political sizzlers with Balibo, a wartime exposé destined to shock, shame and compel Australian audiences.

It is the curtain raising opening night feature of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, marking the third terrific Australian film of 2009 to premiere at a prestigious festival (the others are Mary and Max at Sundance and Samson & Delilah at Cannes).

Based on the true story of five Aussie journalists (aka The Balibo Five) who were murdered by Indonesian militia in the eponymous East Timorese town in 1975, and a sixth, Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), who endeavoured to find them and tell their story, the film conveys a harsh and unspeculative tone.

There is barely a trace of sentimentality and very little shooting the breeze: no forlorn letters to mum at home, no soapy monologues about returning to their girlfriends, no quivering moments of “what are we doing in this sh*t hole.”

Where the screenplay, penned by Connolly and veteran Australian playwright David Williamson, finds elbow room for characterisations is in development of the two central characters: East and a young quixotic revolutionary, José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac), who years later will go on to become President of East Timor.

During the build up to the ’75 Indonesian invasion Romas-Horta headhunts the grumpy, world-weary East, proposing he head the national news agency. East isn’t interested until he learns of the five missing and suspected dead journos from Channel 7 and Channel 9. They strike a deal: Romas-Horta will take East to Balibo, retracing the steps of the journalists, and East will accept the job offer.

The story cuts between time frames, presenting quick bursts of the journalists’ story. Their presence remains high-impact throughout. Gritty on-the-ground handheld cinematography felt like a must from the get-go; this is not a film conducive to classical framing. The cameras bob, jitter and pulsate, underscoring the steady realism of Connolly’s direction.

Oscar Isaac is charismatic as Romas-Horta in a flattering though nevertheless believable portrayal. But it’s Anthony LaPaglia who steals the show as Roger East, in easily one of the actor’s most affecting performances. LaPaglia inhabits the role, his face a mat of grim determination, his eyes like they’re underlined by the shadows of death.

If Balibo’s characterisations are light on the ground, it’s for a good reason. LaPaglia’s tormented face will be etched into the audience’s memories and the experience of watching the film will hang like lead weights.

In one of Balibo’s many high-impact scenes two simple words – “I’m Australian” – take on harrowing connotations. Chalk this dynamite Aussie exposé as a must-see, and remember to take a cold shower afterwards.

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20 thoughts on “Balibo film review: dynamite Aussie exposé

  1. Interview with Lynden Barber, Australian film critic | Cinetology

    […] Animal Kingdom, Boxing Day, The Square and Three Blind Mice. Coming a close runners-up would be Balibo, Mrs Carey’s Concert, The Tracker, Samson & Delilah and […]

  2. The Wedding Party movie review (2010 Melbourne International Film Festival) – Cinetology

    […] anticipating what lies ahead in a “how can they top this?” program. Last year MIFF opened with Balibo, a film the festival financed itself. Vested interest? Absolutely. But it was a big, ballsy […]

  3. Beware end of the year lists! And, um, Cinetology’s end of the year list. – Cinetology

    […] Balibo Director Robert Connolly advances his oeuvre from corporate thriller (The Bank) and down-and-out drama (Three Dollars) to the realm of electrifying political sizzlers with this tight-as-a-snare-drum wartime exposé destined to shock, shame and compel Australian audiences. […]

  4. Samson & Delilah scoops 2009 AFI Awards – Cinetology

    […] Connolly’s taut wartime exposé Balibo followed with four wins: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Lead Actor (Anthony LaPaglia), Best […]

  5. Alterity

    I tend to agree with Aris. Good points.

  6. Balibo banned in Indonesia – Cinetology

    […] my review of Balibo here. Comments (0) | […]

  7. Tony

    I saw this movie on the plane coming back from the USA last week.
    It is the best Australian movie I have ever seen.

  8. Robert Connolly’s Balibo prompts AFP inquiry – Cinetology

    […] with half a brain will point to director Robert Connolly’s recently released political sizzler Balibo as the impetus behind the AFP’s new investigation. It is a timely example of the film […]

  9. Aris

    Just saw this last night, what a powerful film. One of the best films I’ve ever seen. And one more thing: I am Indonesian.

    Just feel like I have to say this because of the comments about Indonesia, including some that I heard when I walked out of cinema last night in Melbourne. The Indonesian military has a lot to answer for, but do not generalise and blame Indonesians for what happened. The only way anyone can find out what really happened to the journalists and to the many East Timorese people is by working with Indonesians who support freedom and democracy. Demonising Indonesians (many of whom were also victims of the past actions by their own government and military) will only achieve more hatred.

  10. History, politics and film - Pure Poison

    […] For some other perspectives on Balibo, see reviews from Cinetology’s Luke Buckmaster, Kevin Rennie as well as Margaret and David. Luke Buckmaster and David Stratton both conducted […]

  11. Interview with Robert Connolly, writer/director of Balibo - Cinetology

    […] Australian journalists in East Timor in 1975. Taut, gripping and intensely acted (read my review here) the film, which opened last month’s Melbourne International Film Festival, is a […]

  12. John Lang

    Saw the film last night and still thinking about it. First thought, brilliant! Second thought, Indonesia go to hell!, third thought, Gough you bastard! Go see this Aussies, you need to see this.

  13. Jason

    Just got home from watching this film… undoubtedly one of the best Australian movies in a long time, and one of the best films in general this year!

  14. Brunette

    Sounds like a must-see. What a year for Aussie film!

  15. Jill

    This film conveyed all I wanted it to, but I was really soured on it during about the first quarter of the film– there was quite a bit of seriously BAD hand-held filming when there was no need for it (and I have never ever had a problem with hand-held camera work). Most notable being a dramatic scene, static seated conversation, where AP’s Roger East was talking with the ABC reporter who had run into the other journalists and left them behind when he evacuated. It was as if the cameraperson had a really bad case of the DTs. I don’t think it will be a critical success but the film’s heart was in the right place.

  16. Grog

    Great to read this review – haven’t had such high hopes for an Aussie film since… err well since a long time.

  17. Wirdle

    I’ve read the book and can’t wait to see the film. It’s a grim and shameful story an one that deserves to be told. Yes, it was a flattering portrayal of Romas-Horta, but given how celebrated and well regarded the man is this isn’t surprising.

  18. Colin Jones

    Will we ever see justice done for the Balibo Five? Not as long as we have craven politicians running the show in Canberra and an AFP not willing to pursue the guilty.
    Why do we bow and scrape to accomodate the Indonesians every time they throw sh*t in our faces or should that be faeces?

  19. Marilyn

    I was wondering if it was ever going to be released. It is surely one of the most shameful kowtowing to Jakarta excercises in our history, undone only by the thousands of others since.

    I have Jill Joliffe’s updated book, will read it before I see the film.

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