Costa-Gavras and the Political Thriller

A short while ago I checked out from the library and watched Missing, a movie starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek.  It’s an intense political thriller by director Costa-Gavras.   I did not know anything of Costa-Gavras, so I decided to do a little research on him.  Costa-Gavras is one of the most respected directors today, the creator of political thrillers that expose government corruption and deceit.

Here is some information on Costa-Gavras from Wikipedia (   Constantinos Gavras was born on February 13, 1933 to a poor family in the village of Loutra Iraias, Greece.  His father had been a member of the left-wing branch of the Greek Resistance during World War II, and was imprisoned after the war as a suspected communist.  Costa-Gavras went to France to study of law in 1951, and in 1956 he studied film.  In his early years he worked with the famed French directors Yves Allegret,  Jean Giono and Rene Clair.  He directed his first film in 1965.

Costa-Gavras is reknowned as a master of the political thriller.   Michael Wood, a teacher of English and comparative literature in Princeton, wrote in the booklet accompanying the DVD of Missing:

“The films of Constantin Costa-Gavras are often described as political thrillers, and the phrase is helpful as long as we pause over it a little.  There is always a strongly personal element to his stories, a human factor, and the thrills are in the politics rather than set against a political background.  The corpses and the cover-ups, whether in Europe or in Latin America, are intimate features of actual historical situations-an assasination in Greece, an execution in Chile, genocide in Germany- rather than fictional elements woven into a political context, as in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), say, or Salvador (1986) or In The Line Of Fire (1993).”

I’ve watched 3 Costa-Gavras movies that are available at the library:  Missing, Amen, and Z.  The 3 films have what Michael Wood talks about, stories of likable people who are affected by the corruption of the society around them.  The drama in these movies comes as the corruption of the society gradually reveals itself and threatens to envelope the main characters and destroy their integrity.  In two of the movies the heroes become disillusioned with an institution with which they had believed to be honest and virtuous, as they see the institutions collaborating with evil to preserve their own interests.  When I watch these films, I keep getting a sense of outrage at the injustices inflicted on innocent people and a sense of helplessness that large people have against the actions of their government.

My favorite of the films is MissingMissing is about the disappearance of Charlie Horman in the Chile of General Augusto Pinochet and the efforts of Horman’s father and wife to find him.  Charlie Horman was a filmmaker and journalist who had been asking questions of American involvement in the coup that toppled democratically elected socialist Salvadore Allende from the Presidency and put General Augusto Pinochet in power.    The early part of the film shows the growing fear that grips the population as the military harasses its citizens and makes them afraid to speak freely.  Charlie, his wife Beth, and his friend Terry are afraid of coming out after curfew, for fear of what the military will do to them.  In one scene, a group of soldiers randomly takes people from a line waiting for a bus to interrogate them.  Blood and corpses are everywhere, a reminder to Charlie and the viewers of the consequences of defying the soldiers.  When Charlie disappears, his father and wife go around to first the American embassy and then to Charlie’s friends in an effort to find out what happened to Charlie.  At first, the father is a firm believer in the American government and is skeptical of Charlie’s wife’s assertions that the American embassy and Chilean military are corrupt.  Gradually though, he finds out that the United States secretly were aiding in the military takeover and the truth of Charlie’s disappearance would expose the extent of the United States involvement.  Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek are the main actors and both do a good job of expressing the outrage and disillusionment of two people who had blind faith in the American government and the goodness of American intentions.  I like this film the best of the 3 Costa-Gavras films because of the appeal that John Shea, Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek bring to the roles of Charlie, his father and his wife. 

Z is the film that made Costa-Gavras famous.  In this film, a leader of a peace movement is clubbed in the head by some demonstrators after speaking in a peace rally and dies from brain damage.  At first the military and the police tell the public that the leader was an accidental death. As a newspaper photographer and a magistrate investigate, however, they find out that the men who clubbed the leader were part of a right wing organization called the Christian Royalist Organization Against Communism with ties to the military.  They also found that the police were in the crowd of demonstrators and did nothing to protect the peace leader from any harm.  As I watched this film, I was appalled at the lengths that the police went through to keep any different views from coming out.  The film begins with a general likening the military to an antibody and any differences of opinions as being like germs to be extinguished by the antibodies.  I liked the film, but I didn’t find the characters as appealing as Jack Lemmon or Sissy Spacek was in Missing.   I looked up Pauline Kael’s review of this movie ( and she wrote:

“How a political murder is made to look like an accident. Costa-Gavras’s extraordinary thriller–one of the fastest, most exciting melodramas ever made–was based on contemporary events in Greece. The picture never loses emotional contact with the audience; it derives from the traditions of the American gangster movies and prison pictures and anti-Fascist melodramas of the 40s.”

The end of the movie lists the things that the military banned from the country and that represented dissent:   peace movements, strikes, labor unions, long hair on men, modern and popular music, Sophocles, Leo Tolstoy, Aeschylus, Socrates , Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, Samuel Beckett, , international encyclopedias, free press, new math and the letter Z, which in Greek means “to live”.

Amen is a film about Kurt Gerstein, a chemist and SS officer in Nazi Germany, who is repulsed when he finds out that the chemicals he creates are being used to kill Jews in concentration camps.  After witnessing how the German Catholic bishop stood up to the Nazis to stop the euthanasia of mentally ill people, he makes an effort to contact the Vatican in the hopes that they would make a similar effort to stop the slaughter of Jewish people.  In this effort, he is aided by a Jesuit priest whose family has connections to the upper echelon of the Vatican hierarchy.  As in Missing and Z, the two men are gradually disillusioned as they see the Pope and the Catholic hierarchy as compromising their Christian duty to publicly denounce the Holocaust because they felt that Stalin’s communism was an even greater evil than Naziism.  As someone who has been interested in the issues of Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust, I felt that Costa-Gavras was fair in his depiction of the Vatican and its dealings with the Holocaust.  In one scene, the Pope allows the Vatican to take up Jewish and nonJewish refugees and hide them in churches to help them escape a Nazi roundup in Rome.   I think Costa-Gavras depicts the Jesuit priest as being the Roman Catholic Church at its best, and contrasts that with the worst aspects of the Catholic hierarchy.  In Amen, the two main characters ask important questions.  Why was the Catholic Church able to take a courageous stand against the euthanasia of the mentally ill and not take a similar stand against Jews being shipped into concentration camps?  Though the Pope secretly sheltered some Jews in churches to protect them from Nazi persecution, why couldn’t he have made a public statement condemning the Nazi policies towards the Jews?    While in Missing Costa-Gavras condemns the United States government’s complicity in the actions of the Chilen military, he is more ambigious in his criticism of the Catholic Church.  While he acknowledges the Pope’s hatred of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi ideology, Costa-Gavras also condemns Pope Pius’s feeble response to the enormity of the Holocaust.

Costa-Gavras is a recent discovery for me.  I found his films have opened the eyes of many people of the corruption of fascist government and the ease in which institutions can betray its high ideals.  Z Magazine, an activist magazine based in Boston, was named by its founders after the Costa-Gavras film Z.  Filmmakers like Oliver Stone have been influenced by Costa-Gavras’ films.  My own personal take on the Costa-Gavras films is the necessity of each person to vigilantly guard his or her own personal liberty and to keep our governments and religious institutions accountable.   Involved and courageous citizens are necessary to make sure our institutions, whether they be our government or our churches, do not stray from its highest ideals.  I end this post with another excerpt from Michael Woods’ essay:

“The hero of Missing, like the hero of Z, like the two heroes of Amen, is a good man who changes his (comformist) politics, or more preciscely abandons his old political assumptions,  for the sake of justice and what he learns of the truth.  In Z, the man is a judge who at first can’t believe that the police and the army have organized a group of thugs to disrupt an antinuclear demonstration and kill a man;  in Amen, an SS officer and an Italian priest testify, against their professional class and to their cost, to what is happening to the Jews in Europe in 1936 and after.  Ed Horman doesn’t become less American than he was, and he has  no interest in the coup or indeed in the possibility or the extent of the involvement of the United States.  But he recognizes when he is being lied to, and he finds out how little he knows about what his government is doing- what it feels it has the right to do in his name.”

About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Angelo Lopez has had illustrations published in Tikkun Magazine, the Palo Alto Daily News and Z Magazine. From April 2008 to May 2011, Angelo's cartoons were regularly published in the Tri-City Voice, a weekly newspaper that covers the Fremont, Hayward, Milpitas, Neward, Sunol and Union City areas in California. He did a political webcomic starring his cartoon character Jasper for the progressive blogsite Everyday Citizen. Since December 2011, Angelo does a regular weekly political cartoon for the Philippine News Today, a Filipino American newspaper based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Angelo is a member of the Sunnyvale Art Club, and the Northern California chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. During the 1990s, he was a member of the part-timer workers SEIU unit in the city of Sunnyvale. Angelo won the 2013, 2015 and 2016 and 2018 Sigma Delta Chi award for editorial cartooning for newspapers with a circulation under 100,000. He has also won the 2016 RFK Book and Journalism Award for Editorial Cartoons. Angelo won first prize for the Best of the West contest in 2016 and third prize in 2017. Angelo is married to Lisa Reeber. They enjoy taking walks, watching movies and hanging out with their nieces.
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1 Response to Costa-Gavras and the Political Thriller

  1. Vigilante says:

    Z made a deep impression on us when we saw it. I remember very cearly walking out of the theatre afterwards into the night rain. There was plent of traffic. We stared compulsively at each car for reassurance that all their windows rolled up, because with the amount of rain coming down, a lowered window could mean only one thing.

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