The Killing Fields tells the real-life story of American journalist Sydney Schanberg (played by Sam Waterson) and his experiences as the last American journalist in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh as American forces flee in the face of Pol Pot's brutal Khmer Rouge regime seizing power. The first half of the film is an unhinged jumble of events as we follow Schanberg and his Cambodian assistant Dith Pran (played by Haing S. Ngor) in their attempts to report on the chaos that unfurls in Phnom Penh and show the outside world the real, unsanitised face of the war in Cambodia. However, as the Khmer Rouge party prepares to march on the capital American forces and civilians flee, but Schanberg is determined to stay despite the danger and convinces Pran to stay with him. As the situation further escalates Schanberg, Pran and the other journalists still in Phnom Penh find themselves isolated in the capital and at the mercy of the brutal Khmer Rouge. They hold up in the French embassy and although arrangements are made to evacuate the foreign journalists, the Khmer Rouge demand that all Cambodian citizens be handed over to them. Schanberg and his fellow journalists attempt to doctor a fake American passport to get Pran out of the country, but it's to no avail and Sydney is forced to abandon Pran to the hands of the brutal regime.
After the dizzying pace of the films first third, which is accompanied by a syth soundtrack that keeps the tension at a fever pitch at the best of times and veers too closely to awful-80's-syth territory at the worst of times, the second half of the film is a much more sombre affair as both men struggle to deal with their situations. Sydney, now back in the US, is convinced Pran is alive and sends letter after letter hoping to find some information as to his whereabouts, but is also struggling with the guilt he feels over abandoning Pran to his fate, while Pran himself is languishing under the savage rule of the Khmer Rouge. It's through his eyes and narration that we see the brutal crimes committed by Pol Pot's regime, as all traces of culture, learning and foreign influence are suppressed and eradicated, and it's through Pran's eyes which we see the titular Killing Fields that so shocked the world and where hundreds of thousands of innocent Cambodians met their deaths.
Despite the manner in which director Roland Joffé quite clearly often attempts to manipulate the viewer, tug at the heart strings, rationalise the Khmer Rouge's insanity and condemn American foreign policy in one fell swoop, the film never really feels too preachy or schmaltzy (except for the musical choice for the ending - Lennon's 'Imagine', really? Ugh) and that's largely thanks to wonderful performances from the lead actors. Waterson is brimming with indignant, righteous anger as the American journalist on a mission at the films outset, but paints a picture of a diminished, pained and guilt-ridden man by the second act. Haing S. Ngor on the other-hand provides a startling and powerful performance as Dith Pran that surely was accentuated by his own experiences in the Cambodian war where he lost his wife and child. Ngor won Best Supporting Actor for his role, and remains the only Asian man to have won the award to date. It was certainly well deserved as without Ngor's touching and emotive performance I seriously doubt that this film dealing ostensibly with the atrocities of the Cambodian war, but ultimately with themes of friendship and guilt would stand up to the test of time half as well.