Forty-four years after its release, Z remains the model for all political thrillers. The film didn't emanate from a vacuum; director Costa-Gavras learned from his predecessors, such as Sergei Eisenstein (The Battleship Potemkin), Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear), and Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers). But Z, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award in 1970, showed more than any other movie the possibility of using a fictional film as a call to arms.
The political events depicted in Z were still current. Not only did Costa-Gavras have a terrible time funding the film, but all those involved with it—including Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Jacques Perrin—faced real danger in agreeing to have anything to do with the project. (The "Making Of" documentaries on the Criterion Collection DVD tell the story.) Z was finally filmed in Algiers, with many in the cast and crew donating most of their salaries to the project. But the newspapers, the wall posters, the labels on beer bottles and other details left no doubt that the setting was Greece, and the time period contemporary.
Based on the 1966 novel by Vassilis Vassilikos, Z concerns the 1963 assassination of left-leaning politician Grigoris Lambrakis and the events surrounding it. The film is sparse in its use of names, particularly those of real persons. Lambrakis, played by Montand in the film, is referred to merely as "The Doctor" (Lambrakis was a gynecologist and medical professor by trade).
Using the sturdy, panoramic structure of Vassilikos' novel, Costa-Gavras and co-scenarist Jorge Semprun created an exciting film, its action moving almost minute-by-minute, with only the briefest of flashbacks to give context to the characters' actions. The film's quick cuts, breathless pace and unexpected flashes of humor have become standard in virtually all subsequent action movies, but the film's real importance comes in the sense it conveys that history is playing itself out before our eyes.
Although Montand and Papas received top billing, the true main character of Z is the examining magistrate played by Trintignant. Stiff and unsmiling, the magistrate is an official of the government whose top members conspired to kill Lambrakis, and therefore the audience expects the worst from him. It comes as heaven-sent relief that he turns out to be incorruptible, interested only in the truth and in bringing the assassins to justice.
Even today, when cynicism about politics has become ingrained, the final scenes of Z are a punch in the face. The assassins were given a slap on the wrist; witnesses to the crime were tortured and killed; the magistrate and the journalists who uncovered the conspiracy went to prison; and the military junta cracked down on the press, literature, music, and even the letter Z, which in Greek denotes a phrase meaning, "He lives."
Z, then, is one of the very few movies that can actually be said to have changed history. The worldwide outcry over the excesses of the Greek junta eventually led to its downfall. The magistrate—his name, never given in the film, was Christos Sartzetakis—was not only rehabilitated, but served as president of Greece from 1985 to 1990.
Z is the father of any number of political thrillers with tragic or problematic endings—The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, The Ghost Writer. Several films released in 2012 owed an obvious debt to Z. One of them, Argo, won the Best Picture Oscar and was reviewed previously in these pages. Another, the Chilean film No, was a Best Foreign Film nominee.
If any film in recent years can be said to represent the spirit of Z, it is Pablo Larrain's No. Although it deals with political events of a quarter-century ago, not those happening now, it is a rousing tribute to the difference one man can make in overthrowing tyranny.
No is set in 1988. Augusto Pinochet has been in power in Chile for 15 years; the country enjoys prosperity, but at the cost of vicious political repression, including the "disappearance" of thousands of dissidents. Facing a tidal wave of negative international opinion, Pinochet schedules a plebiscite—a simple up-or-down vote, Si or No, as to whether he should remain in power for another eight years. A No vote would mean an orderly transition to a new government.
Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a hotshot Santiago ad man, at first is indifferent to the plebiscite. His life is good, after all. When the opposition asks Rene to orchestrate the "No" campaign—a mere 15 minutes of TV time every night in the month leading up to the election, as mandated by Pinochet—he refuses at first. But when he sees Pinochet's police rough up Veronica (Antonia Zegers), his estranged wife and the mother of his son, he changes his mind on the spot.
Pinochet, of course, has no intention of allowing the plebiscite to be a real election, and the opposition knows this going in. The best they hope for is to stake out the high moral ground against Pinochet. Rene, however, is in it to win. He overrules the lofty ideas of his employers in favor of the same happy, bouncy approach he uses to sell soft drinks and telenovelas. This is the best way, he says, of associating a "No" vote with progress and a better future for Chile.
The "No" campaign strikes a chord with Chileans, just as Rene predicted. However, Rene and his crew face increasing threats from Pinochet's thugs. Furthermore, Rene's boss, Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro), is in charge of the "Si" campaign. Lucho is not above stealing tapes of Rene's ads before they air, in order to rebut them before the public even sees them.
In Argo, Ben Affleck juxtaposed old videotapes of the Iran hostage crisis with state-of-the-art Hollywood photography. In No, Pablo Larrain took the process one step further: he shot the entire film on the same Sony magnetic tape that was used in the 1980s for news coverage of the plebiscite. This ensures that the fictional and news footage fit seamlessly, so the film gains in immediacy what it loses in esthetics.
No is a less polished film than Argo, and not just in terms of photography or even its much lower budget. Some of Larrain's transitions from scene to scene are unduly abrupt, and he adds a coda that dissipates the triumph at the end, although I understood why he included it. Nevertheless, as a tribute to those in Chile (and elsewhere) who fought and continue to fight for freedom, No is an admirable film.
Whereas No is a direct lineal descendant of Z, many people would consider Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, Z's bastard child. Indeed, many will be disgusted that I dare to mention Zero Dark Thirty in the same review as Z. The reason is simple: those people see Zero Dark Thirty as defending the sort of state-sponsored sadism that Z condemns.
Do I agree with them? Though Zero Dark Thirty doesn't necessarily offer a ringing endorsement of the use of torture in the hunt for terrorists, at very least it depicts torture as a part of realpolitik. And realpolitik, throughout recorded history, has stunk to high heaven. I won't insult my readers by listing the reasons to be repulsed by torture. But I also find myself thinking of the people who consider it a moral victory to fly airplanes into skyscrapers, blow up commuter trains, and shoot little girls in the face for daring to seek an education.
Is torture defensible under any circumstances? Absolutely not. But neither were the activities of Osama bin Laden, which made the hunt for him imperative, by most if not any means necessary. So I, with millions of others, am guilty of chasing the tail of my own morality.
Bigelow's previous movie, The Hurt Locker, was a war movie to stand with the all-time greats, such as Grand Illusion and All Quiet on the Western Front. Some see Zero Dark Thirty as a total failure not only of Bigelow's moral vision but of her very skill as a director. I disagree at least on the second point. Zero Dark Thirty isn't as tightly constructed as The Hurt Locker—taking place as it does over several years, it couldn't have been—but it kept my attention throughout. The final half-hour of the film, in which the Navy SEALs actually locate and break into Bin Laden's compound, is of course its palm-sweating centerpiece. But the rest of Zero Dark Thirty, with its sudden and often explosive turns of fortune, shows that Bigelow has learned a great deal from Costa-Gavras, Clouzot, Hitchcock, and others.
I also found interesting parallels between Maya, the CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain, and Trintignant's magistrate. Both are dogged, humorless, as intent on their goals as a terrier on a tennis ball. Both have an inflexible moral vision that drives them to follow their search for justice wherever it takes them, and to shove aside anyone, no matter how highly placed, who attempts to stand in their way. But their differences are also glaring: Maya condones torture, the magistrate fights it. Is it merely their circumstances that cause them to differ, or is Maya's moral compass necessarily wobblier than the magistrate's?
At the end of Zero Dark Thirty, Maya sits silently on a military plane. "Where do you want to go?" the pilot asks her. Maya does not answer, but stares into space. Perhaps, having accomplished the all-consuming purpose of her life, she has no idea what to do next. Perhaps she is thinking, and not joyfully, of the things she had to do to reach this point. Z ends abruptly with the voiceover about the arrest of the magistrate and his allies; but we can be sure that, once he is released and restored to power, the magistrate won't be staring sadly into space. And he will know exactly what to do next.