About "These Are Their Stories"

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Featuring Sam Waterston: The Killing Fields

This inaugural edition of “These are Their Stories” highlights Sam Waterston, who plays District Attorney Jack McCoy on Law & Order.

While many may be very familiar with Sam from the Law & Order series, many may not realize that he was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of reporter Sydney Schanberg in the movie “The Killing Fields.”

“The Killing Fields” is based on the stories of real-life journalists Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), Sydney Schanberg (Waterston), and Jon Swain (Julian Sands), as they cover the Cambodian War in the 1970s. The movie covers the friendship between these journalists, but also the horrors of this war.

The Cambodian National Army is fighting the communist Khmer Rouge, made even more complicated by the neighboring Vietnam War. During the war, Schanberg and Pran become separated, when an attempt to forge a passport for Pran’s escape fails. Schanberg later struggles to find Pran, who was forced to live by the rules of the oppressive, murderous Khmer Rouge. It is hard to describe the scene were Pran encounters the “killing fields,” which were areas where the Khmer Rouge massacred large numbers of people and buried their bodies in mass graves. The exact number killed is not known, but it is estimated that at least 2 million people were killed during this time – out of a population of about 7 million.

Waterston and Ngor

The film won three Academy Awards, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Haing S. Ngor, Best Cinematography for Chris Menges, and Best Film Editing for Jim Clark. Waterston was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and there were additional nominations for Best Director, Best Writing/Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, and for Best Picture. Waterston’s performance in this movie was certainly Oscar-worthy. It is hard not to feel the pain and anguish that Schanberg experienced while he covered the war, and later, when he searches for his friend. It is very hard not to come to tears when the two reunite at the end.

A few years ago, I became acquainted with a woman who I later discovered had fled Cambodia with her mother during the Cambodian War. She described the horror being surrounded by the constant threat of death, and the struggle her family experienced escaping. She saw the movie “The Killing Fields” and said it was a very accurate accounting of what was occurring in Cambodia at that time. While she identified with the plight of Dith Pran, she indicated that Waterston’s portrayal of Schanberg reminded her of all the kind people who faced huge hurdles and great risks in supporting her family’s flight from the country.

Sam’s humanitarian efforts include the support of Refugees International, an organization that “generates lifesaving humanitarian assistance and protection for displaced persons around the world and works to end the conditions that create displacement.”

If you’re only familiar with Sam from his Law & Order role, you may want to check out “The Killing Fields” and watch how well this man can act. But I warn you – this is a very serious movie with very serious images. It will, however, be a movie, and a performance, that you will not soon forget.

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