Film Reviews

The Act of Killing & Rush

Published October 5, 2013

There are limits to a social conscience. When a film has attracted every possible superlative it takes on the status of a must-see event, but after about ten minutes you know The Act of Killing will be both sickening and unforgettable. As one deadpan horror follows another in an interminable procession, many viewers will decide they’ve had enough – and flee.
What was astonishing at the preview were those who brought in snacks and popcorn which they munched with gusto. One hardened type even went out in the middle of the screening to restock his supplies!
Although it has been routinely acclaimed as a masterpiece, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary has proven controversial. The ostensible subject is the state-sanctioned massacre of “communists” that took place in Indonesia in 1965-66. The film is very sketchy on historical details, telling us almost nothing about the political background to the killings, which were triggered by the murder of six Indonesian generals by a Communist group. This episode also saw the end of Sukarno era, and the ascent to power of General Suharto.
Because Suharto remained in charge until 1998 there have been few attempts to investigate the scale of the killings. Oppenheimer suggests the final death toll could be between 1-3 million, which is significantly higher than most estimates. Another reason why an event of this magnitude could attract so little attention, was that it was broadly welcomed by the United States and its allies as a blow struck against Communism. Time magazine said it was “the west’s best news for years in Asia”, while the American embassy was alleged to have supplied the army with names of communists and other assistance.
This is all material for another, more factual documentary. The Act of Killing takes an unorthodox approach, by asking a group of elderly killers to re-enact their deeds for the camera. They see this as a chance to celebrate their feats and strut around like Clint Eastwood. The cheerful, matter-of-fact way they describe the methods by which victims were murdered and tortured, will leave viewers reeling.
These aging show-offs reflect with nostalgia and braggadocio on the good ole days when they slaughtered men, women and children with systematic brutality. They describe themselves as “gangsters” (Indonesian preman, from the Dutch vrijman) which they define as “free men”. There is no attempt to hide the fact that the killings allowed opportunities to steal and pillage with impunity. Many of the victims were of Chinese origins, targeted for their economic success rather than their alleged communist sympathies.
The main character is Anwar Congo, a lean, white-haired dandy, who is happy to demonstrate the way he would garrote victims with wire nooses. Anwar claims to have personally killed over a thousand people. His fat friend, Herman Koto, is even more casual in his attitude towards the murders. There are others who seem to recognise their actions were wrong, but feel no remorse.
It is only at the very end of the movie, after Anwar is made to play the role of a victim in a re-enactment, that a glimmer of recognition sets in. I won’t attempt to describe this scene, but it is one of the starkest moments in this grisly saga.
Oppenheimer has been criticised for misleading his subjects, letting them believe they were going to be stars in an action movie. He even orchestrates a series of surreal, Bollywood-style interludes, with souped-up colour, dancers and syrupy music. To the strains of Born Free, a couple of Anwar’s victims appear and thank him for sending them to heaven.
Even if Oppenheimer did mislead these characters – a charge he denies – it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for them. For forty years these men have boasted about their crimes, as if they were heroes. They murdered without a thought for their victims, with the full complicity of the authorities. It is only today that the children and grandchildren of the victims are making tentative efforts to have these atrocities acknowledged. It is too late to imagine any of the murderers will ever be brought to trial. They really are “free men”.
There may never have been a film that deals with such a dire slice of reality in a way that is so hallucinogenic. Anwar goes from describing his methods of execution, to playing with his grandsons, teaching them to be kind to ducklings. The former assassins hold an ongoing colloquy on whether they were “sadistic” or merely “cruel”.
Interspersed with the murderers’ reminiscences are scenes of the paramilitary youth group, Puncasila. Anwar and his colleagues are heroes of the movement, which has a staggering 3 million uniformed followers. The leader of Puncasila is another proud “gangster”, who mixes high moralism with extraordinary vulgarity. If the murderers are nauseating to watch, the Puncasila scenes are chilling. This is the dark side of Indonesia, ever ready to spring into action on behalf of the ruling classes. It seems possible that the killing days could recur at any time, with the same violence and the same justifications.
I wouldn’t argue that anyone needs to see this harrowing film – with the possible exceptions of Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison. After all the foolish electoral rhetoric about stopping the boats and talking tough to the Indonesians, they might take this opportunity to learn a few home truths about our near neighbour.
Race and religion may be the chief factors that carve up the human race, but let’s not forget cars. People are either obsessed with their four-wheeled fetishes, or prone to take a utilitarian approach. Being of the latter persuasion, I feared that Ron Howard’s Rush would devolve into endless scenes of cars racing round and round a track. Howard, the true Hollywood professional, has made some excellent films along with formulaic tat such as The Da Vinci Code (2006), but Rush may be his masterpiece. It is a fascinating study of the rivalry between two powerful personalities – the swashbuckling British driver, James Hunt, and his dour Austrian counterpart, Niki Lauda.
Hunt and Lauda are a study in contrasts, united only by their competitiveness, their ferocious desire to win. Hunt is all instinct, Lauda all calculation. Hunt, played by Australian heartthrob, Chris Hemsworth, is a chiselled chick magnet. Lauda, portrayed by the excellent German actor, Daniel Brühl, is small and plain for a profession that seems to breed superheroes. Hunt is a Dionysian, fond of women, booze and parties. Lauda an Apollonian, so blunt and pragmatic that he offends people without even
This may sound too formulaic for comfort, but Rush is never less than engrossing. Each time the drivers take to the track there is something at stake. As race follows race, in a condensed version of the entire Formula One season of 1976, we feel the growing tension, with Hunt snapping at Lauda’s heels for the championship.
Most viewers would be aware of the disaster that befell Lauda that year when his car crashed on a wet circuit at Nürburg, and he was engulfed in flames. We always know this moment is coming, but Howard builds the tension with great skill. Rescued from the brink of death, and permanently disfigured, Lauda is determined to get back on the circuit to defend his title.
This wouldn’t seem credible if it occurred in a purely fictional story. It demonstrates miraculous reserves of courage and will-power – and perhaps a streak of madness that underlies the Austrian’s rigid, clinical persona. It also imbues Hunt with a new respect for his rival. The competitiveness is undiminished, but the two men now begin to look at each other with admiration.
What makes this story so intoxicating is the atmosphere of Formula One, which – we are continually reminded – is a sport where drivers lay their lives on the line each time they get into a car. It is the latter-day equivalent of the gladitorial contests of ancient Rome. To Hunt, the racing car is “just a little coffin, really, surrounded by high octane fuel all round.. a bomb on wheels.” They fly around the circuit at high speeds, requiring only the slightest malfunction to go crashing into a wall. By the mid-1970s, two drivers would die every season. The last victim was Ayrton Senna in 1994 – the subject of a recent, gripping documentary. Lauda was pulled back from the brink.
The irony is that Lauda is portrayed as an expert judge of risk – a trait wholly absent from Hunt’s devil-may-care personality. Hunt lives on his nerves, usually being violently ill before a race. Prior to the fateful day at Nürnburg, Lauda tries to convince the other drivers the track is too dangerous, but Hunt rejects these scruples and wins the vote. It seems Lauda’s unpopularity is the decisive factor.
The differences between Hunt and Lauda are even reflected in their love lives. Hunt marries the model, Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), in the same cavalier spirit he brings to every other aspect of life, and is staggered when she leaves him for Richard Burton. Lauda’s wife, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), is a much tougher proposition. The courtship is conducted like an arm-wrestle, but she is there by the bedside when her huband is clinging to life.
We’re with Marlene in the intensive care ward, with Hunt in the nightclub, and under the helmet with the drivers as they roar around the circuit. Hans Zimmer’s music, so bombastic in Man of Steel, is perfect for this film. The entire production is a finely-tuned machine in which Howard’s pacing never falters. Whether the protagonists are travelling at breakneck speed or eyeing each other warily before a race, the tension is just as palpable. Rush is that rarest pleasure in contemporary cinema: a consummate piece of story-telling that holds us in thrall right up until the finish line.
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The Act of Killing Norway/Denmark/UK, rated MA 15+, 159 mins
Rush, USA, rated MA 15+, 123 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, October 5, 2013