Betrayed was Costa-Gavras’s first fully American film: he made Missing previously with Hollywood money, but it was set in Chile and shot in Mexico, while Betrayed was set and shot in the good old US of A. It was written by Joe Eszterhas, who had already made his name as one of the highest-paid screenwriters in the business. They would actually work twice, on Betrayed and Music Box, and I would love to know how they got on: Costa-Gavras is a self-described communist and Eszterhas is a die-hard Republican, one who said “Trump may be an asshole, but, then, a choice between criminals and an asshole, I’ll pick the asshole.”
It’s interesting to watch Betrayed in 2019, well after the Trump election that has given a many white supremacists a feeling of acceptability due to that orange turd’s rhetoric. The film is a thriller set in the Midwest, where undercover FBI agent Catherine Weaver (Debra Winger), alias Katie Phillips, is sent to infiltrate some farmers who the agency thinks are responsible for the murder of a Jewish radio-show host. She is soon romantically involved with Gary Simmons (Tom Berenger), who is the leader of a KKK-like organisation. It deals with the conflicted emotions of the two main characters, and the grey area they are in due to that dilemma.
The film has fallen somewhat into obscurity in recent years: it was never a huge hit, but it was reasonably successful at the time. It’s a fairly solid depiction of the ideology and the sort of matter-of-fact way these people live it, and also the indoctrination of Gary’s children. It’s incredibly horrific when it needs to be. There is a harrowing scene where they go into the woods for some “hunting,” which consists of chasing and shooting at an African-American man the white supremacists have kidnapped. The ending of the film is probably a little too heavy-handed, but it’s also an important message, saying these hateful ideas are learnt and not natural. The two main performances are some of these two actors’ best work—Berenger always said it his favourite among the film he did. John Heard plays a fellow FBI member, and Ted Levine is terrifying as one of the other hick white supremacists. I would assume it’s what got him Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs.
The release from BFI should hopefully put a spotlight back on this rock-solid underrated political thriller from the master of the genre. Costa-Gavras didn’t invent the political thriller—The Manchurian Candidate is probably a good ground zero for the genre in cinematic terms—but his films, starting with Z in 1969 and the numerous films after, changed the genre completely and showed the way forward to make films that were fairly radical politically but also incredibly engaging and entertaining. Betrayed also touches upon the increasingly right-wing platform of the Republican party in the ’80s; for example, Gary names his dog Ronald Reagan. It’s funny to watch Betrayed at the moment because all the white supremacists wear red baseball caps that are reminiscent of Trump’s MAGA hat, and Berenger’s Gary even wears one with USA in big letters.
The disc from BFI is decent, featuring a new commentary from film historian Jim Hemphill and two long audio interviews, one with Costa-Gavras and the other Eszterhas. There is also a never-broadcasted interview with civil rights activist William Bradford Huie from 1968. The trailer and a booklet with new essays on the film and contemporary reviews from the time fills out the package.