John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon is a sprawling wreck of a movie that still manages to provoke an eerie sense of déjà vu: It’s the kind of Third World-in-crisis political drama that would have been made 20 years ago by Costa-Gavras, with Jane Fonda getting her consciousness raised (again). Set in 1988, the film tells the story of Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette), an American tourist who stumbles into a revolution: the democratic movement in Burma, where thousands of citizens, led by a coalition of students and Buddhist monks, rose up against the country’s military dictatorship. As in Tiananmen Square, the uprising was crushed. But since this particular violent crackdown wasn’t broadcast on CNN (the international media were barred from the country), it caused barely a ripple in world consciousness.
At the heart of Beyond Rangoon is an embarrassing contradiction. The heroine, a sheltered middle-class American, is presumably intended to be the audience’s representative. But since the focus is on her naïveté, her struggle, her growth, the film effectively reduces the Burmese quagmire to a vacation from hell. It might have helped if we were remotely engaged by Laura Bowman. But Arquette gives her no special curiosity or vigor. The character is meant to be working through a private trauma — her husband and son were murdered back in the States — and Arquette spends the entire movie acting dim and morose.
Occasionally, you glimpse Boorman’s gift for violent spectacle. When soldiers fire into a crowd of protesters, it’s impossible not to be outraged by the primal viciousness of the Burmese regime. But Boorman fails to integrate background and foreground. Aside from Laura, the only other real character is a pacifist professor (U Aung Ko) who speaks in dolefully precious British-style witticisms. It’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s Boorman’s way of making even brutish political calamity seem ”civilized.” D+