“State of Siege”: The political thriller that followed “Z” for Costa-Gavras

By on July 30, 2015

Guest contributor Chris D tells us about the Costa Gavras film based on what had happened forty-five years ago, on July 31, 1970, in the South American country of Uruguay, when Dan Mitrione, an American who was training local Uruguayan police, was kidnapped by the Tupamaros, a radical leftist revolutionary group, devoted to subverting the country’s oppressive conservative government:

With the debate and controversy, stemming from the fallout of the latest Iraq war, about torture by American intelligence officers and their surrogates still popping up in the headlines, The Criterion Collection’s DVD and Blu-Ray release of State of Siege from 1972 seems as timely as ever.

The story is based on a real life event from 1970, when a U.S. citizen and a former small town police chief, Dan Mitrione — fifty years old, father of ten children, then the director of the U.S. government’s Office of Public Safety, a subdivision of the United States’ Agency for International Development aka USAID — was kidnapped and held hostage by Uruguay’s Tupamaro guerrillas.

Interrogated about his role as a CIA frontman and in his training of Uruguayan and Brazilian police, he was finally executed when the Uruguayan government refused to follow through on negotiations. It has been credibly alleged that Mitrione was instrumental in devising systemic torture methods that became endemic to law enforcement organizations in Latin America.

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There is also a strong case to believe that he encouraged the formation of death squads, a “shadow” police apparatus, that recruited the dregs of the South American underworld to surreptitiously execute political dissidents and union activists.

In April of 1970, three months prior to Mitrione’s abduction, the Uruguayan Parliament concluded in a special report that, “the system of mistreatment, brutality and torture used against prisoners by police…has become habitual and, so to speak, normal.”

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Going into further detail about the reprehensible techniques employed, one cannot help but be reminded of the vivid photographic evidence of torture and human rights violations by the U.S. military and CIA personnel at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

For those who are even moderately well-versed in the recent history of Latin America, much of this will come as no surprise. The U.S. government, along with its allies, was instrumental in pumping in support, both financial and counter-insurgent, to such corrupt regimes as dictator Batista in Cuba and the coup in Guatemala in the 1950s.

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Ironically, director Costa-Gavras was given permission to film State of Siege in Chile, a country that had its own troubled history with the United States. Forces on the Chilean right believed the movie would be actively supportive of left wing radicals while the left feared the opposite. None were prepared for Costa-Gavras’ cool, calm and collected approach.

One year later, in 1973, General Augusto Pinochet conducted a coup in Chile – believed to be supported by Henry Kissinger and the CIA – that resulted in the assassination of democratically-elected socialist president Salvador Allende. The United States continued its problematic policies, covertly supporting death squads, in Central and South America throughout the subsequent decades, most notably in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s and early 1990s.

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Master filmmaker Costa-Gavras broke into directing after apprenticing as an assistant under such noteworthy French auteurs as René Clement (Joy House), Jacques Demy (Bay of Angels) and Jean Becker (Backfire). On Clement’s The Day and the Hour (1963), he was befriended by actress Simone Signoret and her matinee idol spouse, Yves Montand (Wages of Fear). Both of them were active in leftist political causes and both agreed to star in his first film as director, The Sleeping Car Murder (Compartement Tueurs, 1965). The picture, adapted from the popular novel by French mystery writer, Sebastien Japrisot, was a stylish noir and an international hit.

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In 1969, Costa-Gavras helmed one of his most famous efforts, Z, a non-linear chronicle of the assassination by the military of a prominent leftist politician (Yves Montand) in Greece. Jean-Louis Trintignant portrayed the audience surrogate, a prominent right-wing, but honest, commissioner given the task of uncovering the truth. The military junta start a backlash of violence when they realize Trintignant has no intention of whitewashing the crime.

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The Confession (1970)

Z won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 1969. After the success of this breakout political thriller, Costa-Gavras directed two acclaimed movies right in a row, both once again starring Yves Montand. The Confession (1970) (also just released on Blu-Ray by Criterion) was first up, telling the story of Artur London (Montand), a Czechoslovak official detained, interrogated and tortured by his fellow Communist Party members in a nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions in the early 1950s.

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State of Siege (1972), came next and was co-written by famous leftist scribe, Franco Solinas (author of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Burn!, and Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein).

As mentioned, Costa-Gavras looks through a microscope at the United States’ intervention in the South American nation of Uruguay and provides a thinly-veiled, accurate interpretation of Mitrione’s kidnapping. He follows the Tupamaro revolutionaries, who, inflamed by the counterinsurgency and torture of protestors and left-wing sympathizers secretly orchestrated by the CIA, abandon their non-violent strategies. They kidnap an envoy, here renamed Phillip Santore (Yves Montand) from USAID, a foreign assistance organization that is a front for the U.S. intelligence community, to leverage the freeing of dissidents.

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Inevitably, the abduction becomes a media circus, a Machievellian bureaucratic nightmare and bloodshed results. The astonishing thing about Costa-Gavras’ approach is his compassion for virtually all of his characters. Although the Uruguayan military police officials come off as sadistic, control freak scoundrels, Montand’s character, Santore, is presented as a complicated family man who fervently believes in his rightist agenda of quashing unions, the freedom of the press and other liberties, all in the service of exterminating socialist and communist movements in Latin America, “by any means necessary.”

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The revolutionaries are portrayed not as criminals, but as intelligent, idealistic common people of the middle and lower classes who have been driven over the edge by the jackboot methods of their unelected government. They have a sad epiphany that their newly aggressive methods will play into the hands of the military and serve as justification for further repression. Costa-Gavras purposely eschews the conventional manhunt thriller format, depicting near the start the discovery of Santore’s body.

Nevertheless, using a fracturing of the linear storyline much as he did in Z, flashing backwards and forwards in time, he draws the viewer into a suspenseful labyrinth of the police search, the interrogation of Santore, the arguments between right and left in Parliament and the efforts of a savvy, fearless newspaper editor, to expose the truth. The director brings back Z music collaborator, Mikis Theodorakis, for the sparse, beautiful Morricone-like score.

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Although very successful in Europe, State of Siege’s reception in the United States was mixed, largely depending on the political leanings of the newspapers that deemed it worthy of review. Needless to say, most U.S. officials hated it. It was abruptly pulled from a special screening that was to have taken place at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., only to be run uncut on a local television station.

Costa-Gavras would revisit his interest in U.S. involvement in propping up corrupt regimes in his most popular film, Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, in 1982.

Now if someone would finally release Costa-Gavras excellent first picture, The Sleeping Car Murder on DVD. It has never received a video or DVD release anywhere in the world, including its native country France, despite the popularity of the original novel. Another lost film? Or are there rights problems? To my knowledge, both The Confession and State of Siege have never received video or DVD releases in America since their original theatrical dates – until now. Both are unflinching (sometimes hard-to-watch) sociological excavations as well as riveting engines of suspense.

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Special thanks to Bryan Thomas for his invaluable help with background research. (Thanks, Chris!)

About Chris D.

Chris D. is a writer, producer, director, actor and musician. He produced three seminal albums of the LA punk and Paisley Underground scenes: Fire of Love by the Gun Club, Days of Wine and Roses by Dream Syndicate, and Gravity Talks by Green on Red. He wrote directed the movie I Pass For Human. He is also the author of fiction and non-fiction; his latest book is the 800-page Gun And Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980. He also recently contributed a chapter to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun, which is scheduled for publication on April 26, 2016. He lives in Los Angeles.