Costa-Gavras is the world’s premier agitprop film-maker. He casts well. He has a good sense of drama and timing. He has a decided talent for political melodrama, for the mood, for the visual creation of atmosphere. Like all toilers in the vineyards of political agitation he suffers from a marked decomposition of reality into pure good and pure evil, but he seems to take to this naturally, happily, at no great psychic cost. He is uncomfortable with all those wishy-washy shades of gray as a matter of temperament, and even ordinary, everyday black and white are usually not clear-cut enough for him. Onward he drives, in his quest for an ever more sable night, an ever more luminous day. His is the temperament of the born agitprop man, of course, but those who share his political orientation (radical Left and anti-American) find him humane and compassionate, soothed, perhaps, by such clarity of vision, such certainty, such rectitude.
Born in Greece but removed to France at the age of eighteen in 1952, when Stalin lived and many who were to be his mentors were still unabashed Stalinists, Costa-Gavras became known to the wide world of movies in 1969 with his Z, from the Greek ZEI, “He lives.” The film contains scenes which imply quite plainly that there was CIA complicity in the Greek colonels’ coup in 1967, and I remember rather clearly Costa-Gavras’s replies at his press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, where Z won the Special Jury Prize, since I was pressed into service and sat beside him on the podium as his French-English interpreter. When a question came from a French speaker as to whether his film indicated such CIA complicity, Costa-Gavras answered yes. But when virtually the same question was put to him by an American correspondent (his U.S. distribution deal being yet unsigned), he answered with some dexterous doubletalk, ending with a ringing denial that the film was anti-American. His reply seemed based on the not unreasonable assumption that most Americans would not enjoy hearing their country attacked, and I can only imagine the thrill he must have felt as over the years he discovered vehement anti-Americanism in America itself—even in Hollywood, which he has finally reached after so many years of striving.
His new film, Missing, affirms categorically (on the basis of no evidence that has yet come to light) that the U.S. engineered still another coup, in Chile in 1973 this time, and also (on nonexistent evidence) that U.S. officials had ordered, or at least condoned, the execution of an innocent young American in Chile because he “knew too much” about U.S. complicity in the coup.
The Universal Pictures executive who supervised Missing has sworn that he believes in it “heart and soul,” as, apparently, do many film critics—a group not notorious for its wide political expertise. Costa-Gavras has not given up his “I love America” line, of course. He loves America for the “incredible freedom of expression” that allowed public opinion to be organized against the Vietnam war, for example, which he calls “an extraordinary history lesson.” He has been reported as saying he is “convinced” (on the basis of intuition) that “the U.S. government had something to do with the coup in Chile,” and that mobilizing the American public is “the only way” to put a stop to the horrors of United States-supported military dictatorship in Latin America. The fact that his film could be made, he says, “is probably one of the biggest proofs of democracy and freedom in this country.” Here is a man who clearly loves America.
But let us take Costa-Gavras’s career from the top, as they say in Hollywood—where he is the cutest thing in radical politics since Jane Fonda in her glory days. But more prudent. I once heard with my own ears Jane Fonda shout out at a rally, “If you only understood Communism you’d be down on your knees begging for it!” Now Costa-Gavras would never say a thing like that. Not in America.
Costa-Gavras had been knocking about in the French cinema for many years as an assistant director before he got a chance to direct his own movie, The Sleeping Car Murders, in 1964, thanks to the sponsorship of Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, both long-time supporters of left-wing causes. Curiously, in the same year, despite their ardent leftism, Montand and Signoret (solicited repeatedly) denied their support to François Mitterrand, who was making his first run as the Socialist party candidate for the French Presidency, against Charles de Gaulle. Aversion to Western social democrats is a pattern we shall observe episodically in the behavior of Costa-Gavras, Simone Signoret, her husband Montand, and others of their friends, and I mention it here because for this circle in the French entertainment world politics has always meant, if not everything, at least a very great deal.
As it happens, The Sleeping Car Murders, starring Montand and Miss Signoret, had little to do with politics. There was a bit of sounding off at a police detective (vicarious gratification, just fun), but the film was a crime thriller, and a very good one at that. Performances by Montand, Signoret, Michel Piccoli, Charles Denner, and Miss Signoret’s daughter, Catherine Allegret (we’re making a family film, joked Signoret) were excellent. The film was a critical and commercial success, and Costa-Gavras was on his way.
His next movie, Shock Troops, a tale of the French Resistance in World War II, failed both commercially and critically, but was invited to the Moscow Film Festival. At this point, however, an event occurred in Costa-Gavras’s native Greece that placed in his lap a story which was to make him one of the world’s best-known film directors.
In 1963 a left-wing socialist political leader named Gregorios Lambrakis, a fine orator and shining light of the EDA party, had been run over and killed by a motorcycle after a political rally in Salonika. The initial cover-up statement—that the incident was a “traffic accident”—had been ridiculed, and it was widely believed, no doubt correctly, that Lambrakis had been the victim of a political assassination. During four ensuing years of turmoil (vastly simplified and rearranged in the movie), revelation followed revelation. Governments fell (not always as a result of the Lambrakis case). And finally, in April 1967, came the military coup d’éstat led by Colonel George Papadopoulos. A Greek author in exile, Vassili Vassilikos, fictionalized the tale in a novel in which he identified the villains only vaguely: the forces of reaction. But Costa-Gavras saw more clearly into the heart of things. He had his colonels, and the world’s attention, and Z was born.
I must give Costa-Gavras his due. He makes first-rate political thrillers. In Z Montand plays Lambrakis; Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the Greek equivalent of the honest and idealistic young district attorney; all the heavies are superbly done, particularly the sadistic homosexual assassin himself, Marcel Bouzzuffi (who was later to play the Corsican arch-thug in The French Connection). The story drives on at a terrific rate, murderers and assorted conspirators being caught out in contradictory stories somewhat more neatly than in life, but with high-ranking military plotters implicated again and again. Given the military junta so recently arrived in power in Athens, the story had great surface plausibility for audiences who knew little of Greek politics.
So far my account of the story of does not differ substantially from that given by most American movie critics, who—in the National Society of Film Critics—voted Z the best picture of 1969. But whether because these critics did not have much French (the subtitles being perhaps inadequate), or for some other reason, a sizable number of details seemed to have escaped their attention. Ten minutes into the movie, we have a scene in which Lambrakis’s lieutenants are conferring about an anonymous warning they have received of an assassination plot. One of the group has reported the warning to Greece’s Attorney General (whose functions would include direction of the equivalent of our FBI), and another of the lieutenants protests vigorously, “The Doctor [Lambrakis was a doctor] is going to be furious when he hears we’ve asked for protection from those vendus.” (The word vendu is far stronger than its literal meaning, “sold out”; the dictionary definition is “traitor.”) “Sold out to whom?” asks another member of the Lambrakis group. “To the Americans,” answers the first. “I really wonder what the Americans have to do with this,” says his interlocutor, to which he is given the following answer: “You should always blame the Americans, even when you think you’re wrong. They know you’re right.”
A few more minutes and we are shown shots of the crowd at the rally, waiting for Lambrakis. Interestingly, it is a “peace” rally. The crowd is shouting, “Disarm! Disarm!” “Weapons to the junk heap!” “No more NATO bases!” “NATO out!” Signs and placards are displayed about the rally calling for (Western) nuclear disarmament. In the midst of all the milling and shouting, a British correspondent, indicating a poster of Lambrakis, asks a local reporter, “Communist?” “Not at all,” says the Greek reporter. “He’s simply trying to free our country of foreign influences.”
As Lambrakis emerges from his hotel he learns that the meeting hall, for which the rally was originally planned, has been closed to him, and that the rally will be held outdoors. “Looks like a set-up to me,” says his chief lieutenant. “Set up by whom?” asks Lambrakis. “Well,” answers the lieutenant, “we’re demanding the closing of foreign bases, aren’t we?” Then, answering his own question: “The CIA.” Lambrakis smiles. “You don’t think you’re overstating a bit?” When Lambrakis mounts the podium at the rally, he gives a resounding speech on the theme: “Peace will sound the death knell of the great heavy industries which base their power on the arms race!”
By and large, surprisingly, the picture we get of the movie-Lambrakis (always called, ritually, “the Doctor”) corresponds fairly closely to the historical Lambrakis, at least on matters of policy. We must recall the world of 1963, when European neutralism had nothing like the scope it has today. It was still the age of Ich bin ein Berliner, when America’s nuclear superiority was immense and Kennedy had stared Khrushchev down in the Cuban missile crisis. To be a Western unilateral disarmer in those days had a very specific political meaning. The Communist party was banned in Greece, where a long civil war had been fought against Communist guerrillas, but the EDA party, of which Lambrakis was a leader, had policies in foreign and domestic affairs which would have been hard to distinguish from those of the Communist parties of western Europe. Although Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in his review of the movie, referred to Lambrakis and his supporters as “decent men in a brutal world,” in the most sober history books EDA is called “pro-Communist,” “Left-Communist,” “fellow-traveling,” or, disregarding legalisms, simply “Communist.” When Prime Minister Karamanlis once needed EDA’s support to maintain himself in power, he resigned, declaring he would not be dependent on “Communists.” Lambrakis himself was vigorously anti-American and anti-NATO, against nuclear weapons, a unilateral disarmer, and an ardent proponent of friendship with the Soviet Union. The night he was assassinated he was the main speaker at a rally of the “Friends of Peace” protesting against the basing of U.S. Polaris submarines in Greece. And we should not imagine that all this was going on somewhere in Iceland. Salonika, where the rally was held, is forty miles from the Bulgarian border and the Warsaw Pact.
Insinuations that the United States was behind the assassination of Lambrakis continue throughout the film. After the assassination, Lambrakis’s chief lieutenant, Manuel (Charles Denner), insists to the examining magistrate in strident tones that the real guilty parties are “in the administration and higher yet, in the [Royal] Palace where the chief of the state police was on duty. [Close-up of Manuel.] And since the Palace never does anything without its foreign protectors, if you want to find the real guilty parties you should look—” Here the magistrate cuts Manuel off sharply, but it is not hard to see where he was headed. During the film’s epilogue, the Greek journalist, among many other wrap-up details, announces: “A Deputy [Member of Parliament] told the court that the prime movers of the affair should be sought in the Palace and in the CIA.” He adds (in a remark that got an approving chuckle when I saw the film at the Cannes Festival): “But he was a Deputy of the extreme Left.”
The inimitable “Costa-Gavras touch” can be shown in a single detail of the film: not content with showing the fictionalized Lambrakis to be a hero, victim, and even martyr, he must be made a saint as well. Roughed up by some bully boys on his way to a rally to call for rejection of U.S. military support and for disarmament, the movie-Lambrakis, a true man of peace, asks sadly, ruefully, “Why do the ideas we defend provoke this violence?” One can be sure that, whatever else he thought, the real Lambrakis knew the answer to this question very well.
Since Costa-Gavras is such a polemical film-maker—the movies’ equivalent of a pamphleteer—some details of his political background might be appropriate. I make use of no private information but only of material that is a matter of public record.
His father was a Russian, from Odessa. After emigrating to Greece, the elder Costa-Gavras fought against the Germans in World War II in a Resistance group considered Communist and was in and out of Greek jails on suspicion of being a Communist for five years after 1945 (during most of which time, it should be remembered, a furious civil war was being fought against Communist forces in the north). Whether he really was a Communist or not I have no idea.
Costa-Gavras, the son, feeling his future in Greece blighted, applied for an immigration visa to the United States, but it was refused. He arrived in France in 1952, and began a new life, reading Marx and Lenin like “forbidden fruit,” he told the New York Times. In time he became what he calls a “Sartrean Marxist.”
Asked a decade or so ago if he was a Communist, Costa-Gavras answered, “To be a Communist means to follow a party line. This is impossible for Greeks like me, who prefer to be independent.” Of course there is an expression for people of Communist sympathies who “prefer to be independent,” and that is “fellow-traveler.” (Jorge Semprun, the well-known novelist and author of Z’s screenplay, was a member of the Spanish Communist party for twenty-five years until he was expelled in 1965, very much against his will.)
Regarding “Sartrean” Marxism, for those who know Jean-Paul Sartre as a vaguely literary celebrity and who are unaware of his virulent hatred of the U.S. and of what a fellow Frenchman once called his “bootlicking” attitude toward the Soviet Union, I shall choose only one of the many lapidary sentiments in which he expressed his overall view of the world: “To keep hope alive one must, in spite of all mistakes, horrors, and crimes, recognize the obvious superiority of the socialist [Soviet] camp.” The reader will note that I did not choose the word “Sartrean” to describe Costa-Gavras’s Marxism; he picked it out himself.
This Sartrean attitude goes some way to explain Costa-Gavras’s motivation in deciding in his next film, The Confession, to tell the story of the Slansky trial in Czechoslovakia. The trial of Rudolf Slansky and his associates in 1952, following so closely the techniques pioneered in the Moscow trials some fifteen years earlier, was the high-water mark of Czechoslovak Stalinism, and the film—marvelously well-made and acted—was taken by many as a rip-roaring anti-Communist movie. But in the intention of its authors, at least, it was not that at all. It was a rip-roaring anti-Stalinist movie. The author of the original nonfiction book, Artur London (played by Yves Montand, with Simone Signoret playing London’s wife), was after all a Communist. He had been one and he remained one, considering Stalinism to be—that famous word—an “aberration” which did not discredit the system as such.
Costa-Gavras was in lock-step with Artur London. He vehemently denied that The Confession was an anti-Communist movie, maintaining that it condemned the “perversion” of Communism and not Communism itself. He had “repressed” his doubts and criticisms of Stalinism all that time, he said (i.e., for fourteen years longer than the Soviet leadership in Moscow), but “my film has been a catharsis.”
Now it is quite possible that in The Confession Artur London and Costa-Gavras did not carry their audience with them in their long-term Sartrean view of the superiority of Communism and the Soviet system. I heard one Frenchman, walking out of the movie on the Champs Elysées in Paris, declare, “Well, if Artur London’s still a Communist after that, good luck!” But look at the problem from another point of view. Suppose, just hypothetically, that one had a history of being a Soviet apologist. Suppose, further, that one wanted to condemn the United States, let’s say, for the ignominies it had committed in Uruguay and Chile. How could one do this credibly without having first condemned the great tyranny of the East, Stalinism? In The Confession, the deed was done.
Or so it seemed. It was not done so far as Lionel Jospin, the First Secretary of France’s governing Socialist party, was concerned. Recently Costa-Gavras, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Jorge Semprun, and half a dozen intimates (it is a tight little group) issued a communiqué vehemently condemning France’s Socialist government for the alleged softness of its reaction to the Jaruzelski crackdown in Poland. Accustomed as Jospin was to these people’s attacking French Socialism from the Left (Montand had once again refused to support Mitterrand during the recent presidential election), he did not take kindly to their suddenly shifting their ground and attacking it from the Right, presenting themselves as principled opponents of Soviet oppression.
After indicating misrepresentations in the communiqué, Jospin pointed out with some acidulousness that the communiqué strangely did not even mention the behavior of the French Communist party—which had not whispered a word of protest against Jaruzelski. This led the Socialist First Secretary to conclude that for many members of the group it was hard to bury their “old loves.” In plain language, this meant they had been long-time supporters of Soviet-style Communism. Jospin felt it was ill-advised for Yves Montand in particular to sign a communiqué criticizing French Socialists for their “attitude” at the time of the crushing of the Budapest rising in 1956 (thrown in for good measure along with the Socialist “attitude” at the time Franco launched the Spanish Civil War in 1936) since Montand himself, immediately after Soviet tanks smashed the revolt in Hungary, had gone on a grand professional good-will singing tour of the Soviet Union.
So, if for American film critics Costa-Gavras and his friends have impeccable liberal credentials as lovers of freedom everywhere, for French Socialists—who know them better, one might think—they are people of a certain political coloration. The world was not created yesterday.
After making The Confession to “de-Stalinize” himself (as, to repeat, the Soviet Union had done fourteen years before him), Costa-Gavras returned to his more normal political role as a champion of Sartrean Marxism. Even those of his movie projects which never got to the screen were revealing in this respect. At one time in the 70’s he planned to make a film about the Paris Commune of 1871, according to the Marxist canon the first occasion in world history when the industrial working class seized power. In the mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow, Lenin’s mummy to this day lies wrapped in the red flag of the Paris Commune. Another Costa-Gavras project was a filmed version of André Malraux’s La Condition Humaine (“Man’s Fate”), a tale of Communist revolutionaries and terrorists in Shanghai, written during Malraux’s Communist period.
A film Costa-Gavras actually made, in 1974, was Special Section, which had only indifferent success—perhaps because it was his only film between Z and his departure for Hollywood which did not star Yves Montand. In Vichy France during the Nazi hegemony, the “Special Section” of the title was an ad-hoc judicial apparatus set up by the government in complete contradiction of French legal principles in order to resentence, to death, men who had already been condemned for political crimes but given lighter sentences. A Resistance group had just gunned down a German officer, the Germans were demanding payment in French blood, and from the Vichy point of view—under the German gun—rather than have the Nazis grab the first dozen Frenchmen they found in the street and execute them in reprisal, it seemed preferable to execute people who had at least been guilty of something. Ransacking their jails, they chose, of course, Communists and Socialists.
Make no mistake, Vichy’s “Special Section” was a shaming blemish in the history of the French judiciary. But millions were dying. French lives were at stake. Who should live? Who should die? It is a story filled with the ominous, bitter taste of the period, but has no hard, driving action, no suspense, its interest residing in the dark complexities of human nature. It is quite beyond the talents of Costa-Gavras. In his movie we learn that evil men are evil, and good men are good—although even this notorious historical episode is not spared the usual Costa-Gavras “improvements.” The chief historical prisoner executed to please the Germans was a Communist. But the French still have a vague recollection that from 1939 to 1941 French Communists did everything they could to impede the war effort against Germany—Communist party leader Maurice Thorez actually deserting from the army—and it was only when “the Motherland” (i.e., the Soviet Union) had been attacked that they joined battle. Consequently Costa-Gavras converted the Communist prisoner to a Socialist prisoner.
For thirteen years now—since Z—Costa-Gavras has made only one film which has not been a political tract, Clair de Femme, drawn from the novel by the late Romain Gary, ex-husband of the late Jean Seberg. The entire film is spent following the grieving hero'(once again, Yves Montand) while his wife, terminally ill (and whom we never see), takes her own life. As is often the case with directors whose strong suit is fast-paced “action” movies, Costa-Gavras, when he attempts grave introspection in Clair de Femme (literally “Woman Light”), becomes unbearably sentimental. The picture was made before the suicides of either Romain Gary or Jean Seberg (Miss Seberg, peculiarly enough, taking an overdose of barbiturates the night she saw the film). Its only political note—absent in the novel—is an unattractive portrayal of Paris’s “White” Russian colony.
For some time Costa-Gavras has had a Latin American connection. His wife, Michèle Rey, former Chanel model and Paris-Match reporter, became well-known for her efforts to secure the diary of Che Guevara from the Bolivian military on behalf of the rich Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli—soon to blow himself to kingdom come as an activist leader of Italy’s Red Brigades. As anyone knows who has read Guevara’s diary, the Communist parties of Latin America, and presumably Moscow, were quite hostile in the mid-60’s to peasant-based guerrilla warfare in that part of the world. It was a Guevaran heresy. Terrorism, however, particularly in its newest and most glamorous form, “urban” terrorism, was a different matter. In 1968, Raúl Sendic of Uruguay, leader of that well-to-do young band of lawyers, doctors, bankers, architects, engineers, and teachers who were soon to be known to the world as the Tupamaros, met with Fidel Castro in Havana, and before long his people were training in Cuba.
In their early days the Tupamaros had gone in for Robin Hood-like activities, hijacking a supermarket truck and distributing the food free in a poor neighborhood, for example, but all that was to change. In 1970 they moved into high gear with a spectacular, savage, brutal campaign of terrorism, the first major terrorist campaign in modern Latin American history.
Up to this point, it should be noted, Uruguay had been a model of social democracy. Tiny, with a population of only 3 million, racially homogenous, it had no miserable, destitute underclass, virtually the entire working class being unionized. Uruguay’s economy was in a bad phase, with hyperinflation, but literacy was high, infant mortality low. Its health service was the best in Latin America. Its social-welfare system, the oldest in the world after Sweden’s. In fact, Uruguay was sometimes called “the Sweden of Latin America.”
The Tupamaros killed, bombed, burned, kidnapped for ransom. By 1971 they held the all-time cumulative record for diplomatic kidnappings. They attacked police stations, broadcasting studios, telephone exchanges, blew up public buildings, homes, shops, cars, killing with increasingly audacious selectivity: high officials of the government, military, police. In Uruguay’s last free election, in 1971, the Tupamaros-backed Communist-front party was trounced by four to one, and soon tens of thousands were demonstrating in the streets of Montevideo against the Tupamaros terror. The government had been reacting with intermittent authoritarian measures for years, but in mid-1972 it struck. The National Assembly declared a “state of internal war,” in effect turning power over to the military, which did exactly what one would expect military forces humiliated by terrorists and facing a national crisis of confidence to do: martial law, arrests, torture. Peace came, the peace of the cemetery.
Today, ten years later, the semi-military regime of Uruguay makes no pretensions whatever to legality. A dozen newspapers have been closed. There are no Tupamaros, but neither are there any investigative reporters or any investigating committees of the National Assembly. In fact, there is no National Assembly. From 1968 through the end of 1974 some 15 percent of the total population of Uruguay (and a much larger percentage of its economically active population) fled the country. This was not entirely the Tupamaros’ doing, of course, but they certainly did their bit, and, looking back, all in all, it is hard to convince oneself that the Tupamaros earned a golden place in history as benefactors of their country. And yet in 1973, with almost all civil liberties liquidated in Uruguay along with the Tupamaros, Costa-Gavras and his screenwriter, an active member of the Italian Communist party named Franco Solinas, brought out their State of Siege—an ode to the glory of these same Tupamaros and the most unabashedly pro-terrorist feature film ever made anywhere.
It is curious to observe how Costa-Gavras’s attitude toward terrorism shifts from Z to State of Siege. In Z the terrorists who assassinate the pro-Communist Lambrakis are abominable people, real animals. But in State of Siege the terrorists who kidnap and kill the American policeman Dan Mitrione are truly wonderful human beings, so life-loving in their manner, and so regretful when they have to put a bullet into Mitrione’s brain, that some less attentive members of the audience might be forgiven if they don’t quite realize these are terrorists at all, perhaps mistaking them for Essenes, or followers of Saint Francis of Assisi, lacking only the broom to sweep insects from their path.
The movie subject is the spectacular coup that launched the Tupamaros’ major drive in 1970 and placed them, at one stroke, in the big league of terrorism. In July of that year, members of Uruguay’s Movimiento de Liberación Nacional (Tupamaros) simultaneously abducted from their homes in Montevideo U.S. police adviser Dan Mitrione (Yves Montand; Mitrione’s name is changed in the film to Philip Santore) and Brazilian Consul Aloysio Mares Dias Gomide (renamed Fernando Campos B.). The goal of the abduction was to secure the release of leftist leaders in prison. When the Uruguayan president refused categorically to bargain with the kidnappers, the Tupamaros abducted still another American, AID agronomist Claude Fly (renamed “Mr. Snow”).
The Uruguayan police then unleashed a tremendous manhunt, pulling in, among many others, Tupamaros leader Raul Sendic himself. The kidnappers, under pressure now, announced that unless the leftist prisoners were freed Mitrione would be killed. The Uruguayan government, after consultation with Washington, stood firm. And a few hours later Mitrione’s dead body was found stuffed into a 1948 Chevrolet convertible.
On these bare bones of the story, abduction, threats, assassination, State of Siege is accurate. It is when it gets into the meaning of it all that the film presents its heavy thinking—and when the historical record doesn’t seem to support Costa-Gavras’s position, he distorts and indulges in audacious inventions at every turn.
First, the dead hand of Marxism. It is advanced as axiomatic in the film that the United States holds Uruguay in thrall as an economic vassal to enrich the American capitalist class. That’s what it’s all about. As members of the Uruguayan cabinet move from their limousines to the presidential palace, the voice of one of the Tupamaros recites their numerous corporate connections. The Economic Minister is president of four corporations, two of them American. The Minister of Foreign Affairs represents the Rockefeller interests, etc., etc. Much of the film is spent in “People’s” interrogations of the hostages in their “People’s” prison, sessions which set forth much of the film’s dialectical burden. At one point a Tupamaros interrogator declares to the elderly AID agronomist: “Whether it’s by drinking beer, swallowing aspirin, brushing his teeth, cooking in an aluminum pan, using a refrigerator, or heating a room . . . every day, every citizen of my country contributes to the development of your economy.” U.S. avarice and malignity are everywhere.
This dire analysis was carried to an interesting height in an interview given by Costa-Gavras and Solinas in Paris after completion of the film. Even Claude Fly’s reports on Uruguay’s agriculture, Costa-Gavras explained solemnly, “could help bring about certain changes, but also—and above all—provide the United States with information on the country’s agricultural situation.” When asked what the U.S. would do with information of such an occult nature, Solinas, chiming in, suggested that Fly’s reports “would give a particular direction to the country’s economy, indeed the direction most useful to the United States and the American economy.” On how Washington would proceed from the receipt of an AID report to the landing of the Marines if the Uruguayans refused to plant soy beans, neither Solinas nor Costa-Gavras felt it necessary to elaborate.
In actual fact, as opposed to this tissue of imaginative fiction dreamed up by our creative film-makers, there happened to be extremely little direct U.S. investment in Uruguay. As Mark Falcoff pointed out in his article, “The Uruguay That Never Was,” at the time of the Mitrione case Uruguay had not been exactly a bonanza for overseas investment capital from the U.S. or any other country for many years. There was too much state control, state ownership, state interference in the economy—and that going back to World War I. Uruguay was a South American welfare state with an oversized bureaucracy, and not even big enough to be interesting in itself, large U.S. concerns preferring to base their operations in Argentina or Brazil.
As for American industrialists enriching themselves from all the U.S. beer, aspirin, toothpaste, and aluminum pans that these 3 million Uruguayans were consuming, a glance at Uruguay’s foreign-trade figures for 1968 are revealing (in percentages):
So much for clutching poor Uruguayans in our despotic grip so they will buy our beer and aspirin. When facts like this are thrown at Costa-Gavras, he immediately begins to whine that Uruguay is just a “metaphor” (we will hear this again when it comes to Chile and Missing). “Uruguay is not the main character,” he said in the interview, with Franco Solinas declaring that “for us, the general theme of the processes of imperialism was more important than the history of a single country.”
But in this movie, if Uruguay is a metaphor, it is a very literal one. A portrait of Artigas, Uruguay’s national hero, is in every government office. We see real Montevideo license plates on the automobiles, hear the names of real Montevideo districts in the police calls, as well as seeing Montevideo’s real airport, Carrasco.
A skeptical person might suspect, given the fact that his movies are suggested by real historical events, that Costa-Gavras attempts to exploit the authority of realistic detailing to cloak gross fictions in the movies’ substance. Indeed, at the most revealing moment of the same joint interview, Solinas made a statement which seemed to imply that he and Costa-Gavras might not believe their beer-and-aspirin line themselves, even as a metaphor. “From a political point of view,” Solinas said, “the basic problem of our epoch is actually the role of the policeman which the United States plays in the entire world.”
Here he was not talking about beer and aspirin, you will notice, but about the so-called containment policy. Concerning his native Italy, Solinas added that the United States—“through the usual diplomatic channels, through NATO, the secret services, the machinations and provocations organized directly or through intermediaries”—always moved to oppose “the advance of the broad masses of the people.” Costa-Gavras quite agreed, adding that “to take apart and explain this mechanism in Latin America, Vietnam, or Europe is in effect the same thing.”
It is too bad, for those Americans building a case that Costa-Gavras is a humanist, an aesthete, or perhaps a mystic, that he and his friends keep saying things like this when abroad. And reporters and critics well disposed toward him in the American press are often constrained simply not to report what he says, to protect him from himself, as it were.
For it is a slightly warped inheritance from the age of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy that for a quarter of a century now it has somehow been “bad taste” to mention a man’s political beliefs—when they are of the far Left—even when he himself shouts them from the rooftops. Costa-Gavras’s and Solinas’s remarks about the U.S. role as a policeman, halting the advances of the broad masses of the people in Latin America, Vietnam, Europe, and everywhere, would seem to imply that they know perfectly well that American interests in Uruguay are not economic, but strategic—and that they oppose them on those grounds. Now when two men team up to make a movie whose clear goal is to attack the strategic policy of the United States, and one of these men is an open member of the Communist party and another a Marxist who tells the whole wide world that he believes the Soviet Union’s system is obviously superior to our own, then it seems to me not entirely irrelevant to point all this out. It is not, I grant you, the American way.
I have not yet revealed State of Siege’s pièce de rèsistance. For even with people far less saintly than the film shows the Tupamaros to be, it is hard to see how extreme amounts of force-feeding of beer, aspirin, toothpaste, and even aluminum pans could justify an assassination. The answer is not long in coming. Santore-Mitrione is a torturer. He gives courses in how to torture people at the International Police Academy. We see it all in flashback, with Santore traveling around with his electrical torture set in a special packing case, teaching the Uruguayans how to torture. And Costa-Gavras has proof, too. Police torture increased while Dan Mitrione was in Uruguay. On the other hand, terrorism also increased while Dan Mitrione was in Uruguay. Perhaps this is another one of Costa-Gavras’s metaphors. If not, we are seriously being asked to believe that American know-how was required to teach Latin Americans such a primitive technique as torture.
How anyone acquainted with the history of Latin America, from the Conquistadors on down, could think for one second that these people would need instruction in these matters from a cop from Indiana is hard to imagine. The Duke of Wellington was once approached by a man with the words, “Mr. Smith, I believe?” Wellington said then, and I say now: “If you can believe that, you can believe anything.”
In 1973, for the special gala opening of the new movie theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington before an official government audience, George Stevens, head of the American Film Institute, chose Costa-Gavras’s State of Siege. A preliminary screening produced an absolute uproar, and the gala showing was canceled.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of the whole making of State of Siege is how Costa-Gavras—with democratic government quite obliterated in Uruguay as a result of Tupamaros terrorism—remained smugly convinced that Tupamaros terrorism in general and the Mitrione killing in particular were highly beneficial developments.
Back in his luxurious duplex in Paris near the Seine, drawing his information from I know not where, he declared resoundingly that “the Tupamaros opened a path which has gotten results on the politico-military terrain of armed struggle.” (If getting wiped out is a result, I suppose this is a true statement.) “In fact,” Costa-Gavras continued firmly, “there has been a profound change in the people’s political consciousness.” The beneficial aspects of this change, as I have intimated, might be easier to discern from Paris than from Montevideo. But sometimes actions yield unexpected benefits. State of Siege, for example, might have raised the political consciousness of George Stevens.
In 1973 a young American named Charles Horman was killed in Chile during the coup d’état of General Augusto Pinochet. Costa-Gavras’s latest film, Missing, sets out to prove that the United States engineered the Pinochet coup, and that it ordered or condoned the execution of Charles Horman because he “knew too much.”
The report of the Senate committee chaired by Frank Church found “no evidence” that the United States had been directly involved in the 1973 coup in Chile. Seymour Hersh, who has done many investigations of Chile and was the first journalist to publish stories on the CIA’s efforts to prevent Allende’s coming to power in 1970, says he investigated Charles Horman’s disappearance and found no evidence of United States involvement in either the disappearance or the Pinochet coup. In 1977, four years after Charles Horman’s death, his widow, father, and mother brought a $4.5 million damage suit against Henry Kissinger and ten other U.S. government officials, holding them responsible. But, still another four years after that, having failed to advance the slightest shred of evidence to support their charges, they petitioned the court to dismiss their case.
Costa-Gavras has no evidence either. He has only his famous instinct. Pressed, he argues inductively: Vietnam, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador. But he doesn’t conceal that he is proceeding from his intuition as an “artist.” None of all this prevents him from opening his film with the outrageous legend: “This film is based on a true story. The incidents and facts are documented.” This is Costa-Gavras’s style.
It should not be thought that Costa-Gavras did no research for this movie. He didn’t read the Church report or the attorneys’ briefs for Joyce Horman et al v. Henry A. Kissinger et al. But he met the Hormans, and he read a book, The Execution of Charles Horman, by Thomas Hauser.
Hauser is a young lawyer originally sought out by the Hormans to represent them, but who wrote the book instead. As the title suggests, it is a somewhat tendentious book, almost as one-sided as a Costa-Gavras screenplay. But not quite. For example, in the movie, Missing, Charles Horman is presented as a sweet, sunny, harmless type—apolitical, of course. He is working on a picture book, The Sunshine Grabbers, most of whose characters seem to be ducks. He is a little bohemian perhaps, but obviously just an overgrown kid. He and his American friends in Santiago put out a little underground sheet, but when his father later asks his daughter-in-law if it’s a “radical” publication she answers reprovingly, “Oh, Ed!,” meaning it is not a radical publication. But we learn from reading Hauser’s book that this little publication contained news for Chileans about the American “antiwar” movement and “U.S. activities in Chile”; that it was Joyce Horman, not her husband, who was working on the duck project; and that Charles Horman was maced at Grand Park in Chicago in 1968 and was a onetime correspondent for the Nation.
Now if Charles Horman had been shown in the film as a young American radical, attracted to Chile by its Marxist leadership and working against the government of his own country, a certain fraction of the movie audience might have thought he wasn’t such an innocent bystander, and another fraction (unjustly of course) might even have thought he got what was coming to him. And Costa-Gavras couldn’t have that.
Another interesting detail disclosed by the book is the parent-child relationship. The movie would have us believe that there is a rather severe generation gap between Charles Horman (John Shea) and at least his father, Ed (Jack Lemmon). Ed is portrayed as a very conservative businessman type, highly critical of his son’s and his daughter-in-law’s “sloppy idealism.” He is no doubt given this markedly conservative personality so that, when we are shown that even a man like this realizes his country is evil, we know it simply must be true. With this in mind, it was very interesting to come upon the following quotation in the book, attributed to Charles Horman’s mother: “You see, Chile is not going to be an isolated incident. Italy and France will elect Marxist governments sometime in the future. Other Western countries will follow. We can’t be allowed to do to them what we did in Chile.”
Since almost every country in Western Europe has had Socialist or Socialist-coalition governments at one time or another without causing too much of a stir, I assume that when Mrs. Edmund Horman of New York City says “Marxist” she means (and knows she means) Communist. A passage like this tells a lot about not only where the Horman family is coming from, as they say, but where it’s going to. For the time being the U.S. is evil in Latin America. Europe comes later.
The central scene in Missing takes place at Vina del Mar on the Chilean coast. (Chile, another “metaphor,” is not mentioned by name in the film.) Charles Horman and a family friend, Terry Simon (Melanie Mayron), have taken the bus to the seacoast for the day, Charles’s wife, Beth (Sissy Spacek), having been detained in Santiago. When Charles and Terry try to return to the capital, they are told no buses are running. All night long, blocked in Vina, they hear small-arms fire and the din of hovering helicopters. In the morning they discover that there has been a coup d’état and the country is under martial law, roads sealed off, telephones cut.
Stranded, they congregate with other Americans, a surprising number of whom are staying at their hotel. Charles gets into conversation with one of them, a retired naval engineer named Creter. Smiling wickedly, Creter says, “I came down to do a job, and now she’s done.” Charles instantly concludes he is talking to a CIA man down to set up the coup d’état. And when Creter adds that he is based in Panama, where he “keeps an eye on things,” and that he soon expects to go to Bolivia, which doesn’t even have a navy, this idea becomes cast in concrete. “I can’t believe he said that!” Charles tells Terry in a high state of excitement. “I can’t believe he said that!”
The actor who plays Creter (very well), does his role in such a way as to lead the audience, too, to think he is a covert-action operative. But the audience is never told that in reality joint naval maneuvers, including units from the U.S., Chile, Peru, and Ecuador, were about to begin off Vina, which might explain shore-based naval personnel (or, for that matter, that inland Bolivia has a modest navy, on Lake Titicaca).
But mainly I find it wildly implausible that a deep-cover CIA man, in Chile on the darkest and direst of covert operations, the overthrowing of a peaceful government, would blab his mouth off to the first American kid he meets. A few humdrum facts, falling into an overheated mind, seem far more likely to have produced the real Charles Horman’s electrifying conclusion. But the entire logic of Missing hangs on the tenuous thread of Charles’s being privy to U.S. participation in the Pinochet coup. He is shortly seized by the Chilean police and disappears, never to be seen alive again. And we are asked to believe that it is the United States that wanted to do away with Charles Horman because he has found out that the U.S. had staged the coup. Why the U.S. didn’t have its Chilean minions execute Terry Simons as well (since she knew everything he did) we are never told.
It is a harsh thing to have to point out, but in revolutionary situations, when thousands are dying, it doesn’t take much to get yourself killed. Many innocent people are stood in front of a wall and shot. The wrong friends, obstreperousness, indignation—the wall. And that’s it. There is every likelihood that this, sadly, is how Charles Horman died.
In any event, I find hysterical cries of, “They’re killing Americans! They’re killing Americans!” quite obscene in a movie by a man whose last film about Latin America celebrated the killing of a U.S. citizen as an act of the highest virtue. Of course, Costa-Gavras told us that Santore-Mitrione was a torturer. But I wouldn’t take Costa-Gavras’s word on anything.
The most connected series of events in Missing is Ed Horman’s search for his son. Ed (Lemmon) arrives in Santiago a prosperous, conventional, middle-aged American with a normal respect for his country’s diplomatic and consular officers, whose assistance he naturally seeks. At the start he sharply criticizes his daughter-in-law Beth’s bitterly cynical attitude toward the U.S. officials, but gradually, step by step (a good performance), he comes to share her views.
Sissy Spacek’s performance as Beth, on the other hand, is decidedly peculiar. From the first scene in which we see them together she is openly insulting to the American diplomats who are at least nominally helping them with their search. Even if she suspects them of deception, they are, after all, the only people who could at least theoretically be of assistance. Beth acts, in fact, as if she already knows the movie’s end—which affirms as clearly as is possible in a dramatic form that the United States was involved in Charles’s murder. Ed Horman, the film’s raisonneur, declares in a ringing tone to the American ambassador that the Chileans wouldn’t dare execute a U.S. citizen “unless an American official co-signed a kill order!” But if even at the beginning Beth suspects this, it means she also suspects her husband is dead, and one would expect a hint of mourning in Sissy Spacek’s performance. There is none. Miss Spacek is so obsessed with playing a woman convinced of the wickedness of her own government that she has no energy left to play a woman mourning a dead husband.
This is partly her own fault (it anyway being a cardinal sin for an actress to act at the beginning as if she knows the end), but of course also that of the director, who, knowing he has a weak case, attempts to strengthen it by urging his performers, at least, to act as if they believe it.
The Hormans’ case, in truth, was so weak it was pathetic, which is why they petitioned to have it dismissed. When Thomas Hauser was called upon to make a deposition under oath in the case of Joyce Horman et al. v. Henry A. Kissinger et al., he expressed himself in a somewhat different style from the one he employed when writing his book. Asked for the basis of Ed Horman’s assertion that the U.S. government had ordered the execution of his son, Hauser said Horman “was relying primarily on what Charles and Terry had seen in Vina del Mar . . . the lack of caring and the runaround he had gotten from embassy officials in Santiago and . . . on a New York Post article which he had read shortly after his return to New York.”
In their brief for the government, U.S. attorneys Ruff, Lam-berth, and Kragis wrote that the Hormans had not made the slightest attempt to prove their case, not even questioning the defendants, and that the basis of the suit was “nothing more than pure suspicion and distrust of defendants” joined to a desire to criticize U.S. foreign policy. They added: “Whether based upon frustration, paranoia, or understandable grief and despair, suspicion and distrust alone simply cannot support a lawsuit.” The Hormans, as I say, petitioned for dismissal of their own suit.
Not that they were happy about it. Oh, claimed Ed Horman, if only he had been shown the limited excisions from those 26 classified documents the affair would have been as big as Watergate! In fact, three high officers of the Carter administration, not even in power at the time of the coup—Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, and CIA Director Stansfield Turner—all reviewed the documents personally and swore under oath that they contained no unknown information about the death of Charles Horman. So, you can go with Muskie, Brown, and Turner or you can go with Ed Horman’s instincts, which strangely resemble Costa-Gavras’s instincts.
And now the Hormans have their movie. The embassy officials delegated to help Ed Horman in his search for his son, described by Hauser in his book as “cold, pasty-faced bureaucrats,” are shown in the film to be callous, dissembling, and obviously deceitful. Instructed by the director to act as if they’re lying, the actors, not surprisingly, do a highly professional job of acting as if they’re lying.
It would be hard to tell this from Missing, but after the Pinochet coup a small staff of U.S. embassy officials secured the release of 17 Americans, checked on the welfare of 600 others, and reported to their families in the United States. In all, only two were killed, Horman and a friend and associate on his pro-Allende publication.
The only other “evidence” evinced to support the Horman case by the Costa-Gavras movie (where the rules of evidence are more lax than in a court of law, not to say nonexistent), is Ed Horman’s discovery of a Chilean security officer who has taken refugee in the Italian embassy.
Actually, when he was in Chile Ed Horman did not meet Raphael Gonzalez (his real name), who only sought refuge in the Italian embassy two years later. Gonzalez was interviewed by two journalists a year after that, and then repeatedly by U.S. officials, all several years after Ed Horman had returned to New York. Horman met Gonzalez much later. The key elements of Gonzalez’s statements were that he had caught a glimpse of Charles Horman at security headquarters shortly after the Pinochet coup and heard him sentenced by a Chilean army officer—while in the next room stood a silent man he took to be a U.S. official from his clothing and the way he tied his shoes. Gonzalez claimed the CIA had sought to recruit him, had persecuted him, and kidnapped and attempted to hypnotize his wife. Slightly bizarrely, he had also written a letter to General Pinochet charging that the highest levels of the Pinochet government were infiltrated by a homosexual mafia. None of this is in the film, of course, which is too bad, because the full González story could have given it a lot of pizzazz.
Film critics, though journalists, often know very little of public affairs and tend to be quite supine before factual allegations about the real world presented to them in such a compelling art form as the cinema. They tend to believe in what has euphemistically been called “a purely cinematograhic culture,” meaning they can learn everything of importance about life from merely seeing movies. They usually do not recognize a didactic film when they see one, particularly if it shares their own attitudes, which are generally Left-liberal. They almost never check out a movie’s facts in books or the press, and often do not read the news columns of their own publications. A film critic who plows through the press material handed out to him in a movie’s press kit might well think of himself as having done some rather heavy research.
I therefore noted with some interest that the press manual for Missing (a nearly $10 million movie produced by a major Hollywood studio) led off with a hymn of praise to the Chile of Salvador Allende Gossens—a Marxist, a friend of Castro’s Cuba and of other Communist regimes, engaged in a large-scale nationalization program in an attempt (in the words of the New Columbia Encyclopedia) “to turn Chile into a socialist state.”
We are told in the press manual that in the first year of the Allende regime Chile’s gross national product tripled, inflation was much reduced, and the infant mortality rate dropped sharply. The manual does not tell us, however, that Allende had inherited a trade surplus from the preceding regime of $300 million, nor that the initial growth in GNP was hugely exaggerated by a boom in the world price of copper. In Allende’s three years, the gross domestic growth went from 8 percent, to 1.6 percent, to minus 5.7 percent. The inflation rate, which in the first year did indeed come down from 35 percent to 22 percent, went the next year to 163 percent, and in 1973—the year of the Pinochet coup—to an apocalyptic 508 percent. As for infant mortality per 1,000 births, Allende brought it down from 79 percent to 65 percent. But Pinochet has brought it from 65 percent to under 38 percent. How many film critics were expected to run down figures like that? The answer, apparently: none.
The press reaction to Missing came in two phases: before and after an article in the New York Times attacking the movie’s veracity.
In the first phase, with painfully few exceptions (notably Time magazine), the critics raved. The Wall Street Journal’s reviewer, Joy Gould Boyum, swallowed the film whole. It was “based on a well-researched, responsible account by an attorney,” she wrote, and the movie itself “keeps strikingly close to the facts. . . .” Accompanied by statements like this, her account of the story reads, indeed, like plain fact: “What Ed Horman discovers . . . is chilling. American officials have been lying to him: despite their denials, his son has indeed been executed by the junta. . . . For Ed Horman this adds up to a shocking and persuasive proof not only of U.S. involvement in the Chilean coup but for American complicity in his son’s death. Exaggerated? Slanted? One would like to think so.”
There is more: an ordinary man “suddenly being victimized by the brutality and injustice of his own government’s policies.” (One would never guess that the Horman family’s suit was withdrawn for lack of evidence.)
Curiously, Mrs. Boyum mentions Costa-Gavras’s State of Siege without seeming to hold it against him. Perhaps she thinks that the murder of Dan Mitrione by terrorists was clement and just. The films of Costa-Gavras “force the audience to question what is happening in the world outside,” Mrs. Boyum writes. Missing is “emotionally devastating.” She ends her review with a tangled passage which seems to reprove us for remaining home “complacent” and “oblivious” while such things are going on.
I quote Mrs. Boyum at such unaccustomed length because of the absolutely enormous use made of her review in the film’s ad campaign. For if the editors of the Wall Street Journal think that an endorsement from their critic for a film like this is of little significance, Universal Pictures politely disagrees. Missing is an elegy to a Marxist regime which expropriated huge American copper interests with no compensation. The U.S. ambassador, in the film, says he is there to protect the interests of 3,000 American firms (actually there were no more than 150). Missing affirms that the U.S. engineered the Pinochet coup, clearly in defense of American business interests. Now the Wall Street Journal is thought to have the welfare of the American business community very much at heart, and if the reviewer from the Journal gave Missing a clean bill of health. . . . The ads from Universal saturated the country.
The article in the New York Times was a small bombshell. Written by Flora Lewis, that paper’s foreign-affairs columnist, it did Costa-Gavras untold damage, at least as a teller of true stories. A friend of mine lamented that the article had only run in the Times’s entertainment section (on the front page of the Sunday edition, Section 2), but was consoled when I told him that was the only part of the paper that movie critics could be depended on to read.
And, indeed, following Miss Lewis’s article, the critics and commentators scrambled in every direction. Some said that, well, the material was controversial but the film was High Art. Others said Chile was just a metaphor, so what if the film was inaccurate—how about El Salvador? But the third group, my favorite, said the film may well have been completely false historically, but it represented the Horman family’s genuine “feeling.” Why does a movie have to be true? Why can’t you base a film on a feeling?
Just to test this hypothesis, I can imagine someone getting the “feeling” that Martin Luther King (to take a far-fetched example) had an ongoing connection with the KGB. I wonder how the movie-reviewing community would receive a film based on this feeling. In any case, even after Miss Lewis’s article, not many critics climbed down completely. I didn’t see any reviews that said: as a matter of fact, this film is junk. But Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice, I must say, saved the honor of the profession. The caption accompanying his review gives an inkling of his gist: “Costa-Gavras: an ancestral grudge against the Truman Doctrine?”
At this point it is hard to tell just how well Missing will do commercially. Universal is pouring a lot of money into advertising, thanks in part to the kind endorsement of the Wall Street Journal. The furor over El Salvador might play a part.
But the essence of it all is contained in an anti-American joke of Communist provenance that used to be quite popular in left-wing Paris intellectual circles. I have already cited the form in which Costa-Gavras used it in the dialogue of Z, but I remember it in a slightly different version. Question: “Should you always blame the Americans even when you don’t know what they’ve done?” Answer: “Yes. Because they know.” If there are a lot of young Americans who feel now the way French Communists did—that the United States is evil incarnate, no proof required—then Missing ought to have a pretty good run.
I will make one confident prediction about Costa-Gavras. If Missing is a great success, and he comes to live in Beverly Hills, or Bel-Air, or Brentwood, in a grand house with sauna, swimming pool, and tennis court, he will give up forever calling himself a Sartrean Marxist. He is adaptable. He adapted from Greece to France, and he will adapt from France to America. He will learn American ways, and he will learn the American lingo. He will learn that it does not go over well here to talk about the obvious superiority of the Soviet system, even purified of that horrid “perversion,” Stalinism. And he will learn that in America people of his cast of mind call themselves, if they have to call themselves anything, “anti-anti-Communist,” or “progressive,” or even “radical.”
But these terms are getting to have a fusty sound now, and Costa-Gavras will sense this. So, if his movies are big hits, and he comes to live among us, I can see the day when Costa-Gavras will join the grand, generous mainstream of the American Left, and call himself, yea, a liberal.