(director: Roland Joffe; screenwriter: Bruce Robinson/based on the magazine story by New York Times correspondent Sidney Schanberg; cinematographer: Chris Menges; editor: Jim Clark; music: Mike Oldfield; cast: Sam Waterston (Sydney Schanberg), Dr. Haing S. Ngor (Dith Pran), John Malkovich (Alan ‘Al’ Rockoff), Julian Sands (Jon Swain), Craig T. Nelson (Major Reeves), Spalding Gray (United States consul), Bill Paterson (Dr. MacEntire), Athol Fugard (Dr. Sundesval); Runtime: 141; MPAA Rating: R; producer: David Puttnam; Warner Bros.; 1984-UK)

  • A gripping romanticized and somewhat fictionalized adaptation of an eyewitness magazine piece by New York Times journalist Sidney Schanberg.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A gripping romanticized and somewhat fictionalized adaptation of an eyewitness magazine piece by New York Times journalist Sidney Schanberg. It’s written by actor-turned-screenwriter Bruce Robinson. Documentary director Roland Joffe (“Vatel”/”The Mission”/”There Be Dragons“), formerly of Britain’s National Theater, in his directorial debut, keeps it chillingly realistic as an historical document about ‘the killing fields’ of Cambodia and as a buddy movie. It’s a superior film, but not without flaws (there’s little emotional intensity from the NY Times reporter, as the friendship between the reporter and the translator never comes across as that warm in the film as it does in Schanberg’s book). Nevertheless it vibrantly brings alive the horrors of recent Cambodian history.

The action starts in 1973. NY Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) arrives in Cambodia and is assisted in covering the increasingly dangerous situation in Cambodia by his local translator Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian non-professional actor who experienced the tragedies of that time‘s re-education program by Pol Pot).

With the US pullout from Vietnam in 1975, Schanberg (Sam Waterston) relies on Dith Pran for inside information. The aggressive Schanberg has an opportunity to rescue Dith Pran when the U.S. Army evacuates all Cambodian citizens; instead, the reporter coerces his friend to remain behind to continue sending him stories. Pran’s family is helicoptered out of Saigon, while Pran stays with Schanberg on the ground. But Schanberg takes sanctuary at the French Embassy with other reporters, but sends Pran out to the field to get the war stories. After the fall of Pnomh Penh in 1975 to the Khmer Rouge, they take Pran prisoner and torture him in Pol Pot’s oppressive prison camps. The last part of the film shows the horrors Pran goes through to escape and how guilt-ridden is his buddy Schanberg, who accepts his 1976 Pulitzer Prize on behalf of Dith Pran and tries to use his influence to get him free.

The real Dith Pran worked as a celebrated photographer for the New York Times beginning in 1980. After the film came out, he was joined by Dr. Haing S. Ngor in his efforts to bring attention to the Cambodian genocide. Pran died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 at the age of 65, while Ngor was killed in LA by a street gang.