With State of Siege, director Costa-Gavras completes a trilogy of incursion that arguably gains strength with each subsequent entry. If Z effectively created the template for the contemporary political thriller and The Confession dialed down the pulsating inclinations for a hard-edged examination of ideological injustice, the final entry synthesizes the two approaches, creating a work that’s thrilling for its interest in process, procedure, and collective responsibility over the ill deeds of a few. More than in either previous film, Costa-Gavras indicts both sides of the terrain for their abuse of power and action, this time relocating to Montevideo, where Philip Santore (Yves Montand), an American Consul of Brazil, is kidnapped by a group of Tupamaro guerrillas and subjected to a series of inquisitions by a masked rebel, Hugo (Jacques Weber). Yet these exchanges comprise only one parcel of Costa-Gavras’s time-trotting epic, as the exterior world responds to the news of Santore’s kidnapping, including a journalist, Carlos Duncan (O.E. Hasse), whose task is to uncover the “real” Santore.
That task, however, isn’t on Costa-Gavras’s own agenda, using Duncan as something of a red herring since his pursuit of a finite psychological profile for Santore ultimately yields very little. Such an end would be more upsetting were the entirety of State of Siege not designed to unmap genre convention, epitomized by the film’s opening sequence, in which Santore is found dead in the back of a car. No spoiler warning needed, as Costa-Gavras directly refutes the meager rewards of an unmasking; there’s no one to be revealed or exposed in any superficial sense. By being explicit that Santore ends up in the box from the start and insistent that there won’t be a shootout that leads to his escape, the film’s focus necessarily shifts to texture and explanation, though sequences remain tense, especially early movements by the guerillas to capture Santore. Without the rudimentary tension of a possible escape, this is cinema-cum-case file at its finest.
The film’s specifics aren’t simply relegated to the minutia of government agencies and attempted insurgencies; also included are period-specific touches, like an emphasis on automobiles as a harbinger of death or the claim that Santore is a “communications expert.” These points are concurrent with Kristin Ross’s explanation of the emergence of modernity in her book Fast Cars, Clean Bodies, which details how France sought to establish itself as a modernized nation following the decolonization of Algeria. These anxieties are bound up in State of Siege throughout, not least because Santore and his compatriots remain colonizers within the military-industrial complex, teaching economically depleted nations torture and interrogation techniques in exchange for mobilized allegiances. In essence, exploitation is a trade and can be sold, though the end result of those dealings, it seems, often retraces its footsteps to punish the originator. Roger Ebert called the film “an indictment of American interference in South American internal affairs,” but that seems too cleanly stated, since it assumes the film intends to indict in the first place; Costa-Gavras continues the aesthetic mode from The Confession by collaging together moments that don’t form a thesis or psychological inquiry, but illustrate the parameters of political conflict while deconstructing journalistic logic and argument.
The film’s core, however, is certainly impassioned and politically engaged, but not at the expense of formal interest. Like in The Confession, temporal shifts cannot be called flashbacks, because they aren’t engaged for purposes of exposition. There are no reversals or ulterior motives to be reconfigured at the film’s end, since Costa-Gavras demands transparency while remaining adamant that even in attempted clarity of politics and representation, circumstances remain necessarily muddled due to the complexities of historical strife. When Santore says to Hugo, “You want to destroy the foundation of our society, the fundamental values of our Christian civilization, the very existence of the free world,” it’s not the film’s perspective, but the character’s alone. Violence and peace, as ideological movements, both yield bloodshed; Costa-Gavras entertains the idea that who carries out certain acts is more important than the actions themselves. Activist and Black Panther Angela Davis said in 1972, while imprisoned, that “the real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and the goals that you’re striving for, not in the way you reach them.” State of Siege finally plays like a feature-length consideration of this philosophical premise.
While extraordinary care was taken with the transfer of The Confession, this restoration is a little less stellar, especially in terms of depth and sharpness. Some sequences look soft while others are well defined, so unless this was a deliberate visual approach by Costa-Gavras, the consistency is a bit lacking here, though the 2K digital image is consistently strong. All evidence of debris, scratches, and unwanted blemishes have been removed, so the flaws are ultimately minimal and of little impediment to the film as a whole. In terms of audio, Mikis Theodorakis’s score is most notable, as it serves as the sole source of audio during several more abstract sequences. Overall, the mix is top notch, as dialogue is clear and consistently audible, with no snaps or pops.
Criterion would have been hip to combine this disc with The Confession into a single package at a higher price, because the supplements provided here don’t warrant the company’s standard retail price for a standalone disc. A 30-minute conversation between Costa-Gavras and Peter Cowie is the only extra of substance, as Costa-Gavras explains how Z gave him subsequent financial freedoms to make the films he wanted; additionally, he discusses the reasons for using Pierre-William Glenn as cinematographer rather than Raoul Coutard and why he chose to reveal the protagonist’s death in the opening moments of the film. Also included are a series of 1970 NBC News broadcasts examining the kidnapping of real-life figure Dan A. Mitrione and a booklet featuring an essay by journalist Mark Danner, who explains that the film "is not a whodunit but a how-was-it-done."
Criterion is squeezing a few extra bucks out of you by not combining this disc with their excellent packaging of The Confession, but the commendable Blu-ray presentation remains reason enough to add this great film to your collection.