Rating: * * *
Verdict: Gripping and unsensational.
Given the horrendous events it documents, this viscerally gripping Australian drama is remarkably understated. Only in a shattering climax does director Connolly pull out all the stops, but by that time it fits well with the sense of outrage that has been slowly building. Connolly is determined that what we never knew, we should now never forget.
The story should be familiar to all of us: in 1975, as Indonesia invaded East Timor to crush its newly proclaimed independence, five Australian-based journalists - including New Zealander Gary Cunningham - went missing. In Canberra, their disappearance was treated with an indifference that later investigation suggests was something much more malign. Another journo followed their trail. None survived.
The film, written by veteran playwright David Williamson and loosely based on journalist Jill Jolliffe's book Cover-Up, narrates these events with a dramatic urgency but without a trace of hysteria. Bookending the action with scenes in which a Timorese woman disinters painful childhood memories, it reminds us of the wider tragedy and the people to whom the story belongs. And it is cleverly structured so as to narrate its two stories in parallel: as hard- bitten hack Roger East and freedom fighter Jose Ramos-Horta (now a Nobel laureate and the country's president) try to uncover what happened, the film retraces the steps of the missing men. Thus East's becomes our point of view: we learn at the same rate as he does what went down but our dread flows from what we already know.
Director Connolly shows an assured hand on this project. The eternally righteous John Pilger, who would presumably have preferred a movie set mostly in Gough Whitlam's office, has condemned Balibo as "a travesty of omissions" because it so indirectly implicates Australia. But the film, which has sparked a Federal Police inquiry and re-opened the case, strikes a perfect balance between the dramatic and the political and commands a greater sense of outrage as a result.
In that, it is helped by a bravely unglamorous yet charismatic performance from the long-underrated LaPaglia. The glimpses of the doomed boys, innocents abroad in their towelling hats and stubbies, excite a mixture of amusement and sadness. But it is LaPaglia's East, our witness to history, who commands our attention and engages our belated anger.
Cast: Starring: Anthony LaPaglia, Nathan Phillips, Oscar Isaac, Gyton Grantley, Tom Wright, Damon Gameau, Paul Sonkkila, Mark Leonard Winter, Mark Winter
Director: Robert Connolly
Running time: 105 mins
Rating: M (violence & offensive language) In English and some Tetum with English subtitles