Cambodia in 1975. The country is war ravaged yet, there are brave people everywhere. Four journalists, Americans Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and Alan “Al” Rockoff (John Malkovich), Brit Jon Swain (Julian Sands), and Cambodian Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), dare to risk their lives to tell unadulterated stories of what is really happening behind the front lines. Atrocities committed by both the Communists Khmer Rouge and the Americans and their allies. They use their photographs and interviews with the locals, which Pran translates for Schanberg and the others, to tell truth to power.
When the Americans pull out of Cambodia, Schanberg helps get Pran’s family out of the country. He and the other journalists stay in country to continue their work. They are kidnapped and released and finally flee to the French Embassy. The men spend many days together with others waiting to be evacuated. Eventually, the Cambodians are ordered to leave the Embassy. Trying to rescue Pran, the men are able to scrape together an expired passport, a camera with film, emulsifiers, and a tiny men’s bathroom. They succeed in photographing Pran and getting the pieces together to make it look like he was a British citizen. All goes to plan until Swain is pulled aside and shown that their photograph has turned solid grey. Pran is removed from the Embassy, and straight into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
Back home in America, Schanberg send out pleas for information or help to locate Pran to 500+ aid organizations. Pran, meanwhile, is forced to labor in rice paddies under constant guard. An early escape attempt ends in immediate capture. His life would be forfeit, if not for a kindness done by Pran, giving a soldier the hood ornament from Schanberg’s Mercedes. The soldier now convinces the others to leave Pran alive, what he tells them is unknown. Pran manages to escape, and, in a powerful moment, stumbles straight into a field full of human remains. He is captured by a local band of Khmer Rouge and pretends not to speak French or English. His captor, who has put him to work as a house servant, eventually finds him out. He entrusts his son into the care of Pran, knowing that the Vietnamese are on their way. Pran takes the boy, a photo of the boy’s parents, some American currency and a hand drawn map, and flees with a handful of other civilians. The group separates and Pran, another man and the little boy are nearly captured by the Khmer Rouge. The other man, carrying the little boy, steps on a land mine. Both are killed, leaving Pran to continue on alone. He eventually makes it to a Red Cross Station in Thailand and is able to reunite with his family in the United States.
Based on a true story, this is a very powerful movie. I will forever be haunted by the image of Pran falling into a pit of rancid water and realizing he is surrounded by the bones of hundreds of people. The movie does clock in at 2 hours and 30 minutes. The first section, showing the horrors of the war documented by the foursome, was perhaps overlong. I can imagine, though, that this section will be more important as more time passes and the story fades in history. If only we were more aware of the mess that war makes of the country where it takes place, and that the best intentions of westerners are not enough to justify interventions like these. Of course, recent history proves that this lesson has not been learned.