Home Video Hovel: State of Siege, by David Bax
Made just three years after his landmark film, Z, Costra-Gavras’ State of Siege has never enjoyed the reputation of that earlier masterpiece, which happens to be one of my favorites of all time. Maybe it was just too soon and, in many ways, too similar to stand out on its own. But the fact is, the director was on a streak at the time and State of Siege, now out on Blu-ray from Criterion, is nearly an equal to Z in every way.
State of Siege, inspired by real events that resulted in the death of a U.S. Embassy official in Uruguay only two years before, tells the story of the kidnapping of a somewhat mysterious, fictional U.S. official by revolutionaries and the government’s violent response. The film cuts back and forth between the man, Philip Michael Santore (played by Yves Montand), being interrogated by his captors and the attempts of the local authorities to both track him down and seemingly to execute as many leftist activists and sympathizers as possible.
Costa-Gavras portrays these killings with a cold regard that makes them all the more disturbing. His matter of fact presentation lends the film a veracity that extends beyond the violent scenes. As in Z, the film has the urgency of a freight train. It looks measured from a distance but you don’t realize how fast it’s moving until it’s right on top of you. That makes it all the more surprising when the movie turns out to also be pretty damn funny. In one scene, the revolutionaries distract the cops by blaring protest songs from a hidden PA in a public square. No sooner have the police dismantled the speaker when another one starts playing the same song. In a group, they rush across the square to the new location and tear down the second speaker only to be immediately greeted by the song starting up again from a third hidden location. This repeats itself a few times, making the lawmen look like the Keystone Cops.
Even this sequence is shot and edited with very little embellishment. Still, it’s an example of what made Costa-Gavras so on top of his game during this time period. State of Siege is an overtly political film, obviously, but it also seeks to entertain while making its point. Costa-Gavras isn’t about to browbeat us for laughing or for getting wrapped up in the exciting intrigue. He paces his films much like the thrillers (The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor and others) that would hit American screens in the following years.
Another thing Costa-Gavras understands is that – while he certainly is not on the side of the U.S. and its presence at the time in Latin American countries – a film is only as good as its villain. Montand’s Santore, whom his captors allege is secretly in the country to train their police in torture and other nefarious practices, may be smug but his is the compelling arrogance of an intelligent man with the strength of his convictions. State of Siege is at its best when it gives Santore room to calmly and persuasively present his case, forcing the revolutionaries as well as the audience to check ourselves, to make sure our beliefs are held as fast as his.
Special features include a new conversation between Costa-Gavras and film scholar Peter Cowie, news footage from the actual events that inspired the film and an essay by Mark Danner.