Arquette, numb with grief after the murder of her husband and young son, signs up for a tour group to Burma in 1988—just in time for the military takeover that put democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for six years. (The Nobel Peace Prize winner was released last month.) Wandering the capital city of Rangoon at night, Arquette gets caught up in a rally led by Kyi (played, for one mesmerizing scene, by Adelle Lutz). Her passport is either lost or stolen, but authorities suspect she may have sold it. The next day she travels outside the city with a tour guide (U Aung Ko) who, it turns out, has leftist political ties. When martial law is declared and the militia proceeds to round up and wipe out all opposition, Arquette and her guide have to flee to Thailand and freedom.
Rangoon, which was directed by John Boorman, has been compared to 1984’s The Killing Fields, about New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg’s experiences in Cambodia, but this is by far the better movie. It can leave an audience overwhelmed, weepy and limp. Much of Rangoon’s power lies in its emotional simplicity and dramatic swiftness. As Arquette is fleeing soldiers, running through jungles, or caught in a churning river, she is also finding a path through her grief. At times, yes, this plays like history as written by Gail Sheehy. Also, the mind totes up all sorts of things that could have been done better: dialogue is by the numbers, battle and pandemonium scenes look a little cheap, and Arquette’s anguish sometimes appears wooden. But the heart, flooding with tears, tells the mind to go jump in a lake.