The story of how five Australian television journalists were killed during Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor is memorably dramatized in “Balibo,” the third and best feature by politically conscious helmer Robert Connolly (“The Bank,” “Three Dollars”). Muscularly interweaving dual storylines set four weeks apart, Connolly and co-scripter David Williamson (“Gallipoli”) arrive at conclusions that starkly contradict the “accidental deaths in crossfire” line maintained by successive Indonesian and Australian governments. Filmed where it happened and packing a huge emotional punch, the pic should do robust biz among upscale auds on August 13 domestic release. Offshore arthouse potential is indicated.
Drifting in and out of the media spotlight Down Under for 34 years, the Balibo case reignited dramatically in 2007 when a Sydney coroner’s inquest backed up claims in Jill Jolliffe’s 2001 source book, “Cover-Up,” that the men had been murdered. Wisely avoiding the temptation to fashion such weighty corroboration into a tubthumping, Oliver Stone-style expose, the pic instead operates as a tense, character-driven thriller with political comment on the side, allowing viewers with little or no prior knowledge of the subject matter to engage instinctively with the “Balibo Five.”
The film’s conscience is securely invested in the real-life figure of veteran journo Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia, also an exec producer). Introduced as a once-fearless foreign correspondent slumming it as a PR hack in Darwin, East is drawn to Timor by Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac), the fledgling republic’s charismatic, 25-year-old secretary of foreign affairs and currently its elected president. Initially refusing to become involved, East changes his tune after Ramos-Horta hands him photos of five Australian TV reporters missing in the border town of Balibo.
At this point the film winds back a month. Delicately crafted snapshots show Greg Shackleton (Damon Gameau), Gary Cunningham (Gyton Grantley), Malcolm Rennie (Nathan Phillips), Brian Peters (Thomas Wright) and Tony Stewart (Mark Leonard Winter) — all under 30 — saying goodbye to loved ones and setting out on their assignments.
What follows is riveting parallel action with the Five tracked from East Timor’s capital, Dili, to their horrific end after filming the Indonesian advance, and East and Ramos-Horta retracing their movements through by now extremely hazardous territory. One of the most wrenching scenes is a perfect re-creation of Shackleton’s last surviving report: Sitting in a village, he says its inhabitants don’t know if they’ll be alive tomorrow and have asked him why no one in Australia or anywhere else will help.
Drawing detailed attention to the mechanics of news gathering and delivery in 1975, Connolly raises the thought of what might have happened had Shackleton and company not been completely cut off from the rest of the world and slowed down by heavy 16mm film equipment. A cell-phone tower near Balibo or a computer instead of a typewriter in East’s hotel might have saved lives and altered history.
Bookended by contempo scenes of fictional Timorese woman Juliana (Bea Viegas) remembering East and life under Indonesian occupation, the pic wraps up with a moving tribute to the nation’s rebirth in 1999 and the many thousands of lives lost in the struggle for independence.
Committed perfs are uniformly tops. LaPaglia is particularly good as the weary scribe who slowly rediscovers his old fire, and Isaac sparks off him impressively as the younger man whose ability to read people is as sharp as his political acumen.
Gritty 16mm-to-35mm visuals shot on the actual locations where the events took place bestow an appropriate docu-like feel, though the handheld photography tips into annoying wobble-cam on several occasions. Lisa Gerrard’s subtle guitar-and-strings score is artfully blended with Timorese songs. Rest of the technical presentation is pro.