“The Killing Fields” demands an emotional response

To describe “The Killing Fields” as a movie about journalism or war would be a gross misjudgment. Instead, describe it as a movie about friendship. Reconciliation. Faithfulness. Roland Joffé’s biopic, based on the experiences of two men during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, demands an emotional response to both the intensity of journalism and the tragedy of war—but namely to the magnanimity of love.

Two actors with as much chemistry as Sam Waterston, who plays American reporter Sydney Schanberg, and Haing S. Ngor, who plays Cambodian journalist and translator Dith Pran, are bound to stir up feelings in viewers. Early into working together, Sydney and Pran become friends. Then, Cambodia falls, and the two men are separated when Sydney is rushed out of occupied Cambodia and Pran is forced to stay. For years, Sydney looks for Pran. For years, he does not find him.

Aside from the plot, many facets of the film explicitly tell viewers how to feel: Quiet, peaceful music accompanies softer scenes in order to draw out sympathy and reflection while harsh, assaulting music plays during moments of high-energy in order to draw out panic and discomfort. Similarly, graphic images of blood and injury are meant to unsettle and make the onscreen environment seem more tangible to civilians completely removed from wartime conflict. But explicit cues are not always the most effective. The real emotion in “The Killing Fields” comes from Waterston and Ngor.

When Sydney calls Pran “brother,” the certainty in his voice is transparent. When Pran cries upon leaving Sydney, his grief is palpable. The two men have an attachment to each other that the audience can feel as if also part of it, and the two actors make this what elicits the strongest emotional response of all. Though difficult to recognize upon a cold watch of the film, the biggest strength of “The Killing Fields” lies in everything it does not say, everything it cannot say. Its biggest strength lies in what must be experienced.

None of this is to take away from the history of “The Killing Fields.” How Sydney and Pran act towards each other is directly influenced by their mutual love for journalism and the war taking place around them; the importance of that remains unchanged. Regardless, “The Killing Fields” is still not a journalism story. It is not a war story. “The Killing Fields” is a reunion story. A forgiveness story. A love story. Of course, journalism and war have heavy influence over how the story plays out, but they are never the focus. With a definitive narrative and full, lush dialogue, one can easily mistake “The Killing Fields” for a plot-driven film. However what truly drives it are the characters, how they interact with each other, the relationships they form. The bond between Sydney and Pran is well-written, well-acted and well-developed. It is deeply intimate in a way that outshines any surface-level plot. Halfway through, the entire film shifts purpose from Sydney’s dedication to journalism, the previous plot, to something different, something more emotional. Ultimately, “The Killing Fields” is not about loyalty to what, but loyalty to whom.

During the final scene when Pran is motioned outside a hut, the camera follows him. He sees something out there: For just a few seconds the camera cuts to show Sydney getting out of the car. The moment lingers, anticipatory, before Pran begins to move forward. In the background, John Lennon sings about peace. In the foreground, Sydney and Pran embrace.