Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The place may be different but the story is a sickeningly familiar accompaniment to many tales of 'independence' after colonisation. The setting this time is East Timor, a country in south-east Asia - around 500 miles north of Australia - which, until 1975, was under Portugese rule. The departure of the colonists, however, did not mark a new birth for the populace. Instead it offered the looming threat of death as Indonesia plotted to invade the country, finally doing so on December 7, bringing with them the massacre of around 200,000 East Timorese while Australia and the rest of the west developed selective blindness.

Among the dead were five journalists (two Aussies, two Brits and a New Zealander who the government Down Under still maintain were unfortunate victims, caught in the cross-fire. Many, however, including Jill Joliffe - a journalist who met the Five before their deaths - think the situation is a whole lot murkier than that, with the Australian government playing a much more active role. Robert Connolly's film is based on her book Cover-Up and makes a compelling case for the conspiracy alternative.

Copy picture

But if Connolly has a political point to make, he is also acutely aware of the necessity of making a film that people want to go to see - and this is first and foremost a thriller. Weeks after the Balibo Five disappeared, middle-aged Aussie journalist Robert East (played here by Anthony LaPaglia), is approached by a young firebrand Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) who wants someone to come with him to East Timor to document what is happening to his country. Intrigued by the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the young TV journalists, East agrees and finds himself in the unstable country on the brink of invasion.

Connolly interweaves the story of East's hunt for the truth about the deaths of the hacks, with flashbacks to the story from the perspective of those journalists, using a bleached-out colourscape with an undeniably 'Seventies TV' feel for those passages of the story showing the youngsters as they head towards their doom, while keeping the colours much more 'warm' in the scenes set with East in 'the present'.

This plot structure is the film's biggest flaw. Although choosing to interlink the stories does offer an opportunity to contrast the changes to the country in just three weeks, the constant flipping between the two time periods waters down the tension. It also makes some of what happens to the younger journalists difficult to follow. East's quest is quite straightforward, but the journalists who went before were travelling to various places and there are frequently moments of head-scratching as you try to work out both where they are and who they are encountering at any one time.

LaPaglia is excellent as the reluctant hero, acting as our surrogate as he gradually pieces together the last moves of these young men, but you can't help feeling that a stronger film would have emerged if more time was spent with the Five rather than the One.

Despite its structural instability, Connolly still manages to find plenty of poignancy in the TV journalists' reports - much, presumably, based on film that the actual men shot - and to gather an emotional head of steam for the climatic scenes. A coda using newsreel footage to detail what happened to Ramos-Horta and the country in the years that followed is a powerful and welcome way to 'resolve' the story.

Reviewed on: 20 Mar 2010
Share this with others on...
Balibo packshot
As Indonesia prepares to invade the tiny nation of East Timor, five Australian based journalists go missing, a month later a veteran correspondent follows them, determined to find out the truth.
Amazon link

Director: Robert Connolly

Writer: Robert Connolly, David Williamson

Starring: Anthony LaPaglia, Oscar Isaac, Nathan Phillips, Gyton Grantley, Damon Gameau, Tom Wright, Paul Sonkkila, Mark Leonard Winter, Mark Winter

Year: 2009

Runtime: 111 minutes

Country: Australia

Search database: