I first saw Costa-Gavras’s movie “State Of Siege” in the company of some fellow leftists when it premiered in New York City movie houses in 1972 or ’73. The film is based on the true story of the 1970 kidnapping in Uruguay, by the urban guerilla group los Tupamaros, of American CIA Agent Dan Mitrione. (For the movie, this agent is called Philip Michael Santore and is portrayed by Yves Montand, which is why characters who “should be” speaking Spanish speak in French instead. There are also bits of English dialogue spoken by other American characters.) After more than a week in captivity, Mitrione was executed after the government, parliamentary in form but daily edging closer to being a military dictatorship, refused to release any political prisoners in exchange for the high-ranking foreign captive. This is not a spoiler, for the viewer will see Mitrione’s corpse in the opening minutes of the film, and even the State Funeral provided for him, with hypocritical praise spewed for this “great friend of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”
From here the film flashes back to the meticulously planned and executed kidnappings themselves (the Brazilian Consul to Uruguay had also been snatched but was later released). The viewer will then learn the true nature of Mitrione/Santore, he with the loving wife and seven children (nine or ten in real life, depending on what source you read). This exposition is brilliantly accomplished via the scenes of him being interrogated by his captors, who conceal their own identities by wearing hoods. [This implies the guerillas had not originally intended to execute this man; had that been the plan they wouldn’t have cared if he saw their faces.]
At first Santore glibly and self-righteously sticks to his cover story, that he was merely a “communications and traffic expert,” a benign employee of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). But to his chagrin he quickly learns that the Tupamaros have an extensive dossier on his real role and activities and they are tape recording all these interrogation sessions. Among the activities of this upstanding family man and good Christian are training police and military personnel in the use of torture by electric shock applied to the most sensitive parts of the human body, and overseeing the formation of an extra-governmental death squad. In helping to maintain governance in the interest of US corporations (United Fruit Company and the Rockefeller banking interests are named specifically), his interrogator reminds him: “Your methods are war, fascism and torture.”
The best retort this agent of imperialism can come up with is: “You’re just subversives! Communists!” As if those words magically expunge his own heinous crimes! Under the laws of the United States and probably most other nations, this man could surely have been tried as an accessory to the murder, by torture or outright assassination, of innumerable individuals. Under the law, it matters not that he (presumably) didn’t personally, directly participate in these crimes, keeping his fingernails clean and manicured, working out of an office at Police Headquarters (even this Santore denies initially, claiming he works elsewhere).
As the interrogations continue, we will learn that Uruguay was not the only country where Mitrione/Santore had plied his trade. I will leave it to the prospective viewer to learn those details later. In his 1975 book “Inside The Company: CIA Diary” Philip Agee, a former employee of that agency turned whistleblower, confirmed how the CIA hides its agents in Latin America and elsewhere in the world behind cover occupations, often involving USAID. And here’s a note of extreme irony: this movie was filmed in Chile while Salvador Allende was president, not long before Dr. Kissinger gave the word for the overthrow, with CIA assistance of course, of that democratically elected government.
Does the filmmaker present los Tupamaros in a generally sympathetic light? That depends on one’s politics. Vincent Canby, film critic for The NY Times in the 1970s, condemned this movie as crude leftist propaganda. The director shows the guerillas painted into a corner by the ruling regime’s intransigence. Even the captive agent, in the end, declines to ask the United States to intervene by lobbying for the demanded release of political prisoners. “The United States does not negotiate with terrorists” was the official line, with Nixon in the White House.
In a recent interview included with the Supplemental material on this DVD, Costa-Gavras reveals himself as a classic liberal: he clucks his tongue about violence used by the oppressed, saying it undermines any claim to morality. He even asserts that he depicted Mitrione as a good person! Perhaps he would even extend that description to the likes of Kissinger or the sneering approvers of torture under Dick Cheney’s regime?
There have been Hollywood movies depicting foul goings-on within the CIA and other elements of “the secret government,” but none with the power of “State Of Siege,” since it is based on real events. We learn in the interview referred to above that a screening of the film at the American Film Institute was “mysteriously” canceled back in the day. One needn’t be a “paranoid conspiracy theorist” to suspect that, with former CIA chief George H. W. Bush in the White House in 1990, a certain pressure may have been applied from on high to cause the cancellation of the scheduled US release of this film on LaserDisc. The movie had been released on VHS tape in the early 1980s, but dubbed into English and “panned and scanned” to fit the standard TV dimensions of the time. This did not meet my personal video standards, so the decades passed and all I could do was fume in frustration over the unavailability of this remarkable project. I am extremely grateful to Criterion Collection for finally filling this vacuum.
This reviewer’s sympathy was definitely with the Tupamaros when “State Of Siege” had its initial theatrical release in this country. Today I have no qualms whatsoever in saying my sympathy remains with the guerillas, and not with agents of the CIA doing their dirty work to maintain the rule of Business and Capitalism over Humankind.
MOVIE (DVD) REVIEW: “STATE OF SIEGE,” 1972, Color, 1.66:1 aspect ratio, in French with English subtitles, 121 mins.; available in Blu-ray and standard definition DVD formats. Screenplay: Franco Solinas and Costa-Gavras; Director: Costa-Gavras; Music: Mikis Theodorakis. Originally a production of Valoria-Films; copyright KG Productions; DVD issued by Janus Films/Criterion Collection, USA in May 2015.
Greg Laxer is a lifelong peace activist who served time in military prisons for opposing the War against Viet Nam from within the Army.