"Swimming to Cambodia" is based on a one-man, two-evening stage performance that Gray polished and took on tour a couple of years ago. It has been edited down to less than two hours and directed by Jonathan Demme with an unobtrusive authority. There are subtle light and music cues, a few sound effects such as fluttering helicopter blades, and, for the rest, there is Gray's face and his voice.
His monologue begins with his auditions for the role in "The Killing Fields," the film that told the story of a friendship between a New York Times correspondent and his Cambodian assistant. The assistant, Dith Pran, was played by Haing S. Ngor, who won an Academy Award for his performance. Gray won no awards for his work in the movie and indeed is a minor character whose few scenes are shown in the course of his monologue.
What he had, during the course of the shooting in Thailand, was a great deal of spare time. He seems to have used this time to investigate not only the fleshpots of Bangkok, but also the untold story of the genocide that was practiced by the fanatic Khmer Rouge on their Cambodian countrymen. He recounts in great and gory detail all of his findings, from the infamous "banana show" in a local nightclub to the disappearance of millions of Cambodians in the greatest mass murder of modern history.
He is a spellbinding storyteller, and as he speaks, something occurs that might be called the "radio phenomenon." This is the same effect that was created in "My Dinner With Andre" (1981), another movie in which the characters simply sit and talk. Although we are essentially only seeing a face on a screen, we are picturing the story's events in our minds; it's like listening to a radio play.