Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: as summer fades into oblivion, No Escape shows up just long enough for nobody to go watch its story of how a Southeast Asian political revolution annoys some white people. This is probably inherently bad, but at least there are better and worse versions of that scenario.

There's an immensely slender needle that The Year of Living Dangerously needs to thread, and damn me if it doesn't just about perfectly manage to do it. The film takes place in Indonesia in 1965, during the lead-up to the failed coup d'état that led, in the short term, the mass killing of around a half of a million individuals in '65 and '66, and in the slightly longer term, to the replacement of Sukarno by Suharto as President of Indonesia. So the trick is that the movie is about an Australian journalist, Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson), on assignment in Jakarta, and try though it might, the script by Peter Weir & David Williamson, based upon a draft by C.J. Koch (upon whose novel the film was based), never really finds a satisfactory way to explain to its Western audience just exactly what the nitty-gritty details of the political situation in Indonesia was. It is, basically, one of those White Witnesses to Third-World History pictures. But at the same time, in the form of Chinese-Australian photographer and dwarf Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), the film vocalises, over and over again, with both a sense of playful humor and a snarl of accusation, the reality of how useless Westerners are as witnesses, and whatever is true of Indonesia, the presence of idiot Europeans is not making things any better. It is a critique, fairly blunt and unforgiving, of exactly the same self-rewarding blindness that makes e.g. an Australian filmmaking team suppose that the story of an Australian journalist in love with a British attaché against the exotic backdrop of a violent revolution is anything but an insult to the reality of that revolution.

Through all of the years since the film premiered in 1982, it has been subjected to claims that it's exactly that insult, and the critics mounting that objection have an incontrovertible point. Still, there's a lot more bite in its diagnosis of the West's infantilising, othering relationship to the rest of the societies in the world than simply trying to cover its ass with flimsy autocritique. Weir (who directed, on top of co-writing), along with Hunt's astonishing performance, oscillating from charmed to savagely bitter with unpredictable leaps as well as Gibson's pointed shallowness - one forgets how well he played empty shells and otherwise disreputable sorts in the Australian phase of his career - do a remarkable job of presenting a character dynamic that constantly challenges the apparent assumptions of the film and its genre.

That's a powerfully fine balance, and at times the film misses it - one particularly ill-conceived scene finds Kwan using shadow puppets to explain the complexities of Indonesian politics while Maurice Jarre's score, so good at playing nice and leaving itself more muted and troubled than the usual soaring themes of his most famous compositions, decides that what the hell, it's time to go all-in on Orientalist orchestrations. But the thing the film does best is to constantly position Hamilton as not merely an outsider but an unwanted, invading outsider, too stupid to realise it. Gibson is often framed as an ill-placed object in frames; at one point, his blue eyes are shot in an incongruous close-up that makes him seem like the exotic foreigner, not the Indonesians around him who are, after all, just trying to scramble through their lives.

It's appealing to think about the film mostly in terms of its social concerns, its ambivalent feelings towards Hamilton, and those elements that are centered on Gibson and Hunt, because they are where it is best. But that's not the only focus of the movie, not even the main thrust. This is, on paper anyway, a love story set against turbulent history, one of the movies' favorite subjects throughout their existence: the unsteady dance between Hamilton and Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), a dear friend of Kwan's and a bright young thing at the British embassy. This thread, which is presumably the A-plot, never quite feels like it fully integrates itself into the movie: for one thing, Weir is obviously more interested in capturing the tension of pre-revolutionary Jakarta and the surrounding countryside, as well as the miserable humidity that helps to make things seem likelier to pop at any moment. The scenes in the embassy have a distinctly lower level of commitment than the scenes of Hamilton out among the Indonesians.

The other reason that the Hamilton/Bryant subplot never becomes quite as important to The Year of Living Dangerously as it feels like it ought to genuinely shocks me. Weaver, whom I usually adore very much, is quite ineffective in her role, most obviously starting with her spectacularly inconsistent accent. Sometimes it's sometimes just her everyday acting voice, and on one or two occasions totally convincing as a native of England. Mostly it's the kind of thick, made-up play-acting of an enthusiastic kid mashing together a handful of distinct English accents into only all-purpose slurry. It's enough, by itself, to take one out of her performance, and to be fair, she's not really bad outside of her voice; she has a tendency to recede into the background, but that's on the directing as much as on the acting. Still, she doesn't try very hard to make an impression; the role is less complex and full than it maybe could be, but Weaver only manages, if anything, to make the character seem hollower and less thoughtful than the writing. And this disappoints me grievously.

Still, those parts of the movie which work, are unbearably great: the hot, hectic cinematography by Russell Boyd (a Weir regular; this was their last collaboration for more than 20 years), the sense of unstoppable momentum of the political unrest, both as observed by Hamilton and filtered through the increasingly raging, petulant Billy Kwan. And that takes me to the film's unambiguous stand-out element: Hunt is a miracle in this movie, and if everything about it was terrible besides her - and that is so far from being the case! - it would still be essential viewing just on her account. We might well ask why a white woman from the New York theater made casting sense in this role; admittedly, the number of male half-Asian dwarves looking for jobs in Australian cinema around the start of the 1980s was probably small, so why not Hunt? And that is, apparently, the basic logic that Weir brought to bear in his insistence on casting her.

It paid off, anyway: this is an unrelentingly great performance even without its gimmicky elements of transformation, though those are great. Knowing that it's Hunt, knowing who Hunt is, and having now seen the film three times, I still can't see her in Kwan's face and mannerisms, and I can only just barely hear her. Her commitment to the character goes beyond the spectacle of a woman playing a man convincingly, though. Kwan is by far the most complicated character in the movie, the one whose motivations need the most teasing out and whose actions motivations shift and evolve the most dramatically and visibly. Hunt finds a way into all of that, playing Kwan as a thorny, likable, untrustworthy figure of wisdom and ambiguous observations, emotionally sensible and coherent even as his words are cryptic.

One might go so far as to suggest that not only is Hunt's Kwan the best selling point for the film, he's a metaphor for what it is, too. Uncertain in his identity as male or female, Eastern or Western, a concrete protagonist or a poetic concept, Kwan is an emblem of the film's own dissatisfaction with itself, as a story of a white man's adventure in Asia that constantly belittles stories of white men in Asia. He is the avatar of a film that tries to face in two directions at all times, and while he is ultimately broken by it, the film thrives on that tension and ambivalence. Its flaws are unmistakable and some of its beats (especially towards the end) a little bit rote, but The Year of Living Dangerously is much more daunting and daring than it appears, maybe even more than it realizes.