Costa-Gavras: A Camera’s Eye for Truth

Still from State of Siege.

Costa-Gavras has shown us, over and over again, how the state can and will silence all opposition when those who worship at the altar of power feel threatened by ordinary people and their desire for justice and freedom. And how the police organs of the state will not hesitate to use any means necessary to attain their goal.

Not too long ago, one night, and early into the morning, I watched a double-feature of Costa-Gavras films, State of Siege (1972) and Missing (1982). This kept me awake until a little after two in the morning. Then I couldn’t sleep because my brain was working overtime thinking about the methods that had been used to suppress dissent. Both films showed quite clearly the US playbook on overthrowing democratic societies that put American business interests in danger. Then, a week later, I watched Betrayal (1988) and was reminded of the fact that nothing has changed in the realm of racist rhetoric and evil deeds, and that the FBI hasn’t changed either, they’ve just gotten even better, since 1988, at surveillance and extra-judicial activities.

In State of Siege, Costa-Gavras lets us see that the pattern for domination has been in place for a long time and, no matter what the resistance to this domination, it is met with brutal force. The same pattern is shown in Missing. Since Missing was made 10 years after State of Siege, you might have thought that maybe something positive had developed in the decade in-between. But no. Missing takes place in an unnamed South American country, but everyone knows it’s Chile (and Argentina, and Brazil), where people were swept up off the streets and herded into stadiums and then were executed or just disappeared. Some thrown out of helicopters or airplanes into the ocean — which was spoken of with admiration by power-worshiping Republican Erick Erickson.

Betrayal brings the topic of racism in America into sharp focus. The “hunting” scenes and later the “camping” scenes explore the casual cruelty and the indoctrination that reduces people of color to a non-human status, to “mud people.” That was back in 1988. Today, I believe, a film like this could not be made. It wouldn’t get the green light because of language, for one thing, but the danger of retaliation for actors, producers and the director is so heightened today that nobody would dare bring reality into such stark focus. It’s bad enough that those who govern are undoubtedly racist, but if they were to disparage a film like Betrayal you can be sure that their militia-henchmen would get the message in the same way they did in Michigan when they showed up in front of the state capitol.

Plans of action and procedure for an organized takeover of the state, as outlined in things like the Venezuelan Coup contract, the Homeland Security Analyst Desktop Binder and the CIA Manual on trickery and deception, are nothing compared to Edward Luttwak and his Practical Handbook for a Coup D’Etat. And, as Betrayal shows us, the right-wing forces have such plans drawn up already and are anxious to employ them. 1988 was eight years into the Reagan regime, which expertly ravaged Central and South America as well as fuelling the Iraq-Iran war. It was also the final stage of right-wing infiltration of all levels of government.

In State of Siege, around minute 57, a speech is given in Washington at the International Police Academy to police officials from every nation in South America and other developing countries around the world about “anti-social activities that threaten the free world” and “irresponsible elements striving to pass themselves off as revolutionaries” and then the cops in attendance are told:

“… the nations responsible for the free world have now realized the urgency of putting an end to terrorism and restoring the rule of law and order. Police officials, since they are the front line fighters in the defence of society, have a duty to learn more about these problems in order to better solve or combat them. Such was the main purpose that led to the establishment of our academy, so that the best representatives of all police forces in the free world can meet together, exchange their ideas and experiences, and thus reach a deeper, more inclusive insight into the serious problems that our society now faces.”

Police in the USA have heard this speech thousands of times, and police chiefs attend such meetings regularly. They are even trained at what was once called The School of the Americas (SOA). Authoritarians care little about the color of your skin or your religion as long as you are working for “restoring the rule of law and order” … “in the defence of society.” All this with an iron fist of course!

Missing is much more graphic in how it presents death, with bodies strewn everywhere, in the streets, in the stadium, and the stark contrast between those scenes of horror and the way officials deal with the situation, casually stepping over bodies, showing rooms full of “these have been identified”, and then “these have not” and Jack Lemon looking up and seeing shadowy dead bodies, limbs akimbo, through the milky glass roof of the room he is standing in, surrounded by the dead. And the American embassy officials, with their weasel words and their constant evasion of the truth, until it’s so impossible to hide the truth that they have to admit it. The clincher comes around 1:49 into the film when Ray Tower, the police and military liaison guy from the embassy, #2 on the terrorist hit list, says:

“I don’t know what happened to your kid, Ed. But I understand he was a bit of a snoop. He poked his nose around in a lot of dangerous places where he didn’t really belong. Now suppose I went up to your town, New York, and I started messing around with the Mafia and I wind up dead in the East River, and my wife or my father complains to the police because they didn’t protect me. They really wouldn’t have much of a case, would they? [dramatic pause] You play with fire, you get burned.”

In Betrayed we see how a female agent of the FBI is manipulated into remaining undercover even after she is convinced that she will be discovered and is therefore in danger of being killed. In fact, it’s not only Debra Winger’s character “Cathy” who is supposedly betraying Tom Berenger’s “Gary”, it is the betrayal perpetrated by someone inside the FBI who passes sensitive information along to the white supremacists. Even though she protests that her cover has been blown, the agents don’t care because Winger’s character is seen by her male FBI cohorts (one of whom, Michael, had an affair with her that she no longer wants to pursue) as a weak female. Around 1:19:25 into the film Cathy says to her FBI handler:

“I didn’t join up to kill anyone. Michael, you promised me I wouldn’t get dirty. You were using me. You’re still using me.”

And Michael, replies: “You let me use you.”

Then another agent chimes in: “Everybody uses everybody, girl. It’s just a matter of what you’re being used for.”

Along the way I read George Orwell’s Second Thoughts on James Burnham, an American writing before and during WW2, and started to really understand when Orwell said: “… it is clear that Burnham is fascinated by the spectacle of power…” That “It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in cowardice and partly in the worship of power, which is not fully separable from cowardice.” And “Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.” It is a very good analysis of the thinking of James Burnham, but Orwell also makes it a great analysis of the way American minds work in the realm of political thought. How the “mental disease” of power worship has been placed above all else. Why, otherwise, would a country want to have so many guns in the hands of irresponsible people? Misreading an ancient amendment to a constitution is just a poor excuse. The true worship is for the power the weapon bestows.

Mao’s expert opinion: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

All three of the Costa-Gavras films explore the use of power in detail. State of Siege and Missing expose the brutal power of American influence in the overthrow of “unfriendly” governments. And Betrayed shows us how both the right-wing and the government believe that the power of the gun is the ultimate expression of how control can be exerted.

BLM has not yet reverted to the power of the gun. Their power at the moment is because of numbers of people (of all colors) on the street. The police show power (using the gun) and are praised by the people most interested in holding on to power, the oligarchs who control the United States. If you pay even the slightest attention to any of the films that Costa-Gavras has made, you will be aware of the fact that if BLM (or any other justice-seeking group, like OWS for example) starts to get too much power and then decides to actually use the gun because their power is frustrated at every turn, then they will be tarred with the same brush as the ANTIFA movement or Islamic jihadists. The consequences will then be harsh.

The fact that white supremacists and anti-democratic forces have infiltrated all levels of government does not make a State of Siege impossible in the USA. It has already been hinted at often by the regime now in power. And it is very possible that people who will join in “restoring the rule of law and order” … “in the defence of society” will be members of militias headed by white supremacists and members of organs of the state, like Homeland Security, the police and the FBI.

Danny Antonelli lives in Hamburg, Germany.