18 Days of Paranoia #11: Betrayed (dir by Costa-Gavras)


The 1988 film, Betrayed, starts out on a strong note but then quickly becomes annoying as Hell.

It opens with shots of a radio talk show host, an outspoken liberal named Sam Kraus (Richard Libertini).  Kraus berates his callers.  Kraus ridicules anyone who is to the left of Bernie Sanders.  When a man with a rural-accent calls in and attacks Karus for being Jewish, Kraus calls the man an idiot.  After he gets off the air, Kraus walks through a parking garage and stops in front of his car.  Another car pulls up beside Kraus and suddenly, a masked man with a gun opens fire on Kraus, killing him.  The gunman gets out of the car and spray paints, “ZOG” on Kraus’s car before then fleeing the garage.

(ZOG stands for Zionist Occupational Government.  It’s a term used by the type of anti-Semitic dipshits who thinks that the Protocols of Elder Zion are real.)

From this shockingly brutal opening, we cut to panoramic shots of beautiful farmland and crops being harvested in the American midwest, the heartland.  Gary Simmons (Tom Berenger) owns a farm.  He’s a Vietnam vet who nearly received the medal of honor.  He lives with his mother and he has two children.  (He’s divorced and his ex-wife died as the result of a mysterious hit-and-run in California.)  Almost everyone in his small hometown seems to worship Gary.  They’re certainly curious about his new girlfriend, Katie Phillips (Debra Winger).

And really, they probably should be.  Katie Phillips isn’t Katie Phillips at all.  She’s actually an FBI agent named Cathy Weaver and she’s been sent undercover to investigate whether or not Gary was involved in the murder of Kraus.  Cathy, who comes from a broken family and who we’re told has always been seeking some sort of deeper meaning in her life, is charmed by both Gary and his family.  In fact, she falls in love with Gary.  She tells her superior, Mike Carnes (John Heard), that there’s no way Gary is dangerous.  Mike doesn’t believe her but, of course, Mike has a personal stake in this because he and Cathy used to be romantically involved.

(That’s right, everyone.  Betrayed is so narratively lazy that it resorts to making Mike a scorned lover, even though the film’s plot would have worked just as well if he wasn’t.)

As I said, the first part of the movie works.  Debra Wingers gives a strong performance and Tom Berenger is a charming roughneck.  For the first half-hour or so, the film does a good job of showing why men like Gary and his friends are susceptible to conspiracy theories and why they feel that the entire world is stacked against them.  You can understand why Cathy is so troubled by her assignment because Gary’s friends are hardly master criminals.  For the most part, they’re farmers who feel like their entire way of life has been taken away from them.

Unfortunately, almost immediately after Mike refuses to allow her to end her investigation, Cathy returns to the farm and sleeps with Gary.  Not only is this a plot development a disservice to everything that has previously been established about Cathy as a character but it also marks the point where the movie entirely falls apart.  Immediately after sleeping with Cathy, Gary suddenly goes from being a complex but troubled character to being a cartoonish super villain.  And listen — we’ve all been there.  You meet a guy.  He’s handsome.  He says all the right things.  He seems like he’s sensitive.  He makes you feel safe.  You let down your defenses for one night and the next morning, he’s yelling at you for wearing a short skirt in public.  It happens.  Of course, in Gary’s case, it means that he’s not only criticizing the way that Cathy dresses but he’s also taking her on a hunt where the prey is terrified person of color who Gary and his friends have kidnapped.  It also means that Gary drags Cathy along on a bank robbery and then expects her to join him when he wants to assassinate a presidential candidate.  Even after all that, Cathy remains conflicted about what to do with Gary.  The problem is that it’s not like Gary’s a guy who needs sensitivity training or who spends too much time watching ESPN.  Gary is a guy who is carting around weapons and talking about how he wants to kill “mud people.”  That Cathy still has mixed emotions after all of that goes against everything that the film previously asked us to believe about her.  Gary becomes too cartoonish to be plausible and, as a result, he drags down Cathy’s character as well.

Unfortunately, as the film’s narrative falls apart, so do the majority of the performances.  While Debra Winger struggles to make her character’s motivations plausible, Tom Berenger is reduced to doing a lot of glaring.  (Poor John Heard spends most of the movie shouting and bugging his eyes.)  About the only actor who comes out Betrayed unscathed is John Mahoney, who plays Shorty.  Shorty is one of Gary’s friends.  He’s a friendly and personable guy who seems to sincerely care about everyone and who has a charmingly gentle smile.  He’s also a total racist and the contrast between Shorty’s amiable nature and his hateful thoughts provide the latter half of Betrayed with its only powerful moments.  Mahoney gets one big scene, where he talks to Cathy about how much he hates violence but, at the same time, he feels that the world has left him no other choice.  Mahoney does a great job with his small role.  It’s unfortunate that the rest of Betrayed couldn’t live up to his performance.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum

Cannes Film Review: Missing (dir by Costa-Gavras)


The 1982 film Missing takes place in Chile, shortly after the American-backed military coup that took out that country’s democratically elected President, Salvador Allende.

Of course, the film itself never specifically states this.  Instead, it opens with a narrator informing us that the story we’re about to see is true but that some names have been changed “to protect the innocent and the film.”  The film takes place in an unnamed in South America, where the military has just taken over the government.  Curfew is enforced by soldiers and the sound of gunfire is continually heard in the distance.  Throughout the film, dead bodies pile up in the streets.  Prisoners are held in the National Stadium, where they are tortured and eventually executed.  Women wearing pants are pulled out of crowds and told that, from now on, women will wear skirts.  The sky is full of helicopters and, when an earthquake hits, guests in a posh hotel are fired upon when they try to leave.  About the only people who seem to be happy about the coup is the collection of brash CIA agents and military men who randomly pop up throughout the film.

Again, the location is never specifically identified as Chile.  In fact, except for the picture of Richard Nixon hanging in the American embassy, the film never goes out of its way to point out that the film itself is taking place in the early 70s.  If you know history, of course, it’s obviously meant to be Chile after Allende but the film itself is set up to suggest that the story its telling is not limited to one specific place or time.

Charlie Horman (John Shea) is an American who lives in the country with his wife, Beth (Sissy Spacek).  Charlie is a writer who occasionally publishes articles in a local left-wing newspaper.  In the aftermath of the coup, Charlie is one of the many people who go missing.  All that’s known is that he was apparently arrested and then he vanished into the system.  The authorities and the American ambassador insist that Charlie probably just got lost in the confusion of the coup and that he’ll turn up any day.  Even though thousands have been executed, everyone assumes that Charlie’s status as an American would have kept him safe.  As brutal as the new government may be, they surely wouldn’t execute an American….

Or, at least, that’s what Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) believes.  Ed is Charlie’s father, a businessman from New York who simply cannot understand what’s going on.  He can’t understand why his son and his daughter-in-law went to South America in the first place.  He can’t understand why his government is not doing more to find his son.  And, when he eventually arrives in South America himself, Ed cannot understand the violence that he sees all around him.

Working with Beth, Ed investigates what happened to his son.  At first, Ed blames Beth for Charlie’s disappearance and Beth can barely hide her annoyance with her conservative father-in-law.  But, as their search progresses, Beth and Ed come to understand each other.  Beth starts to see that, in his way, Ed is just as determined an idealist as Charlie.  And Ed learns that Charlie and Beth had good reason to distrust the American government…

Costa-Gavras is not exactly a subtle director and it would be an understatement to say that Missing is a heavy-handed film.  The Embassy staff is so villainous that you’re shocked they don’t all have mustaches to twirl while considering their evil plans.  When, in a flashback, Charlie meets a shady American, it’s not enough for the man to be a CIA agent.  Instead, he has to be a CIA agent from Texas who heartily laughs after everything he says and who brags on himself in the thickest accent imaginable.  When Charlie talks to an American military officer, it’s not enough that the officer is happy about the coup.  Instead, he has to start talking about how JFK sold everyone out during the Bay of Pigs.

As the same time, the film’s lack of subtlety also leads to its best moments.  When Beth finds herself out after curfew, the city turns into a Hellish landscape of burning books and dead bodies.  As Beth huddles in a corner, she watches as a magnificent white horse runs down a dark street, followed by a group of gun-toting soldiers in a jeep.  When Ed and Beth explore a morgue, they walk through several rooms of the “identified” dead before they find themselves in a room containing the thousands of unidentified dead.  It’s overwhelming and heavy-handed but it’s also crudely effective.  While the film itself is a bit too heavy-handed to really be successful, those scenes do capture the horror of living under an authoritarian regime.

(Interestingly, Missing was a part of a mini-genre of films about Americans trapped in right-wing South American dictatorships.  While you can’t deny the good intentions of these films, it’s hard not to notice the lack of films about life in Chavez’s Venezuela or the political dissidents who were lobotomized in Castro’s Cuba.)

Missing won the Palme d’Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival (an award that it shared, that year, with the Turkish film Yol) and it also received an Oscar nomination for best picture of the year.  (It lost to Gandhi.)

44 Days of Paranoia #38: Z (dir by Costa-Gavras)


(SPOILERS!)

For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at the 1969 political thriller, Z.

Though Z is based on events that actually happened in Greece and features a  soundtrack of Greek music that manages to be both haunting and lively at the same time, the film itself takes place in an unnamed, European country.  While the country is officially a democracy, it’s actually controlled by a cabal of politicians and military leaders who use fear and intimidation to maintain power.

As the film opens, The Deputy (played by the charismatic Yves Montand) and his aides arrive in a small city.  That night, the Deputy is scheduled to speak a rally for nuclear disarmament.  As we’re shown from the start of the film, the outspoken Deputy is considered to be a threat by both his country’s government and the United States as well.  Despite having received word that an attempt is going to be made on his life, the Deputy speaks at the rally.  After the rally, as the Deputy walks across the street, a truck comes out of nowhere.  A man in the back of the truck strikes the deputy with a club, killing him.  The official story is that the Deputy was simply hit and killed by a drunk driver but the Deputy’s followers know otherwise.

Realizing that the Deputy has the potential to be an even more powerful symbol in death than he was when he was alive, the government assigns the Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignat) to investigate the Deputy’s death.  Since the Magistrate is known to have political ambitions of his own, it’s assumed that he’ll simply rubber stamp the government’s story.  However, the Magistrate surprises everyone by turning out to be a man of integrity.  Working with a journalist (Jacques Perrin), his investigation uncovers a conspiracy and leads to the indictment of several high level military officials.  In a scene that will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a movie, the Deputy’s wife (Irene Pappas) is told that the men responsible for her husband’s murder will be held responsible…

And this is where you would normally expect the film to end.

However, Z goes on for another few minutes and it’s those final minutes that elevate this film from just being a well-made thriller to being one of the most effective political films ever made.  The film’s narrator informs us that the government was subsequently overthrown by the military.  The indictments were dismissed.  The Magistrate was reassigned to other duties.  The “drunk drivers” who were officially held responsible for the Deputy’s death were given light sentences.  As for the Deputy’s loyal aides, some were forced into exile while another was killed while running from police.  Finally, we’re told:

“Concurrently, the military banned long hair on males; mini-skirts; Sophocles; Tolstoy; Euripedes; smashing glasses after drinking toasts; labor strikes; Aristophanes; Ionesco; Sartre; Albee; Pinter; freedom of the press; sociology; Beckett; Dostoyevsky; modern music; popular music; the new mathematics; and the letter “Z”, which in ancient Greek means “He is alive!”

As the film ends, a long list of everything and everyone that has been banned rolls up the screen.  It’s a devastating scene, one that firmly establishes that the greatest enemy of dictatorship (as well as the first victim) is freedom of thought.

However, even before that ending, Z had already established itself as a powerful film.  I usually dread watching politically themed films because, for the most part, I find them to be drearily heavy-handed.  Well, make no doubt about it,  Z is a very political film and it’s also a very heavy-handed film.  However, it’s so well-acted and well-directed that I hardly minded the fact that the film was essentially trying to indoctrinate me.  It’s rare that you find a polemical film that also works as entertainment but Z is one of those rare films.

Z made history in 1970 when it was the first film to be nominated by the Academy for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture of the Year.  Watching it today, it’s easy to understand why Z was so honored.  It remains an exciting thriller, a powerful political statement, and a bold call to action.

Z, incidentally, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  However, best picture was won by Midnight Cowboy.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd
  30. Nixon
  31. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  32. The Purge
  33. The Stepford Wives
  34. Saboteur
  35. A Dark Truth
  36. The Fugitive
  37. The Day of Jackal