I haven’t tackled too many dark dramas or hideously violent ones (although the über-funny and gory “Zombieland” is an exception – click here for my review) and I’ve skirted politically charged ones, too. I’ve tended to stay in the realm of somewhat forgotten films that need some attention or great ones you might have forgotten. However, just as I did with the politically controversial AIDS film “And the Band Played On” (click here for my review), I’m taking a look at the acting in “Betrayed,” a 1988 film by activist director Costa-Gavras. It is about a white supremacist group based on the real-life deeds of a group called “The Order.” It is a powerful film with a powerful message and especially images and imagery. You’ll have to make the call on this one yourself because only you can decide if it’s worth a recommendation.
(1988; 127 minutes; rated R; directed by Costa-Gavras and starring Debra Winger, Tom Berenger and John Heard )
UNDERCOVER IN THE UNDERGROUND IS TOUGH
“Betrayed” is a highly charged political film from 1988 about the white supremacist movement in the wake of a group called “The Order” and the killing of radio talk-show host Alan Berg (he was Jewish). It addresses the complicated issue of race and right-wing radicalism through a white supremacist and an FBI agent who beguiles him and infiltrates his group.
Just as he did six years earlier with “Missing” starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, Costa-Gavras uses real-life events to tell the story. Unlike “Missing,” “Betrayed” doesn’t use real names and compresses events to fit the frame he’s chosen for the film. Although it has violence, “Betrayed’s” hammer-like blows are ideas and words and it truly is a political film. Judge for yourself when you see a child in all innocence saying reprehensible things taught to her. With just that said, I’ll leave it to you to pass judgment.
On the acting front, it really doesn’t get much better than “Betrayed” with a step-below A-level cast that’s offered here. The two headliners have four Oscar nominations between them, so I’m not saying these aren’t top-tier actors on the ability front. However, they don’t get (or got back in the day) all the attention. They deserve it here for great work.
“Betrayed” is about the FBI infiltrating a white supremacist group in the Midwest. Members of the group have killed a Jewish radio talk-show host and the feds are desperate to find the killers. They have targeted a farmer for reasons never fully explained and, of course, he and his friends are part of a national movement. They help rob banks and were going for a high profile assassination when the undercover agent manages to stop them. The group also goes “hunting” – where a kidnapped black man is turned loose in the woods with a gun and they go after him with submachine guns and dogs.
The film is mostly the experience of the female FBI agent who infiltrates the group; beguiles its leader; and sees quite a number of eye-popping things from a supremacist camp in the woods (complete with a cross burning) to taking part in a bank robbery where she shoots but only wounds a guard. It is what the experience does to her psyche that plays out throughout the film and the personal toll taken on her emotionally.
Debra Winger plays FBI agent “Catherine Weaver” who’s calling herself “Katie Phillips.” She hooks up with the group leader, becomes intimate with him and ultimately spoils his plot (I won’t spoil the film’s plot twists here). Winger is superb in her effort here as she pretends to be in synch with the group and has to rein in her horror. Winger is most remembered and got an Oscar nomination as Richard Gere’s love interest in “An Officer and a Gentleman” and her two other nominations with “Shadowlands” and grindingly annoying “Terms of Endearment.”
Tom Berenger plays farmer “Gary Simmons,” who is a Vietnam veteran with a new mission in life. Berenger so easily flips from being a cruel racist to loving father and farmer that you forget how tough it is to accomplish this by an actor. Berenger has everything for the role: the voice, the emotion and even looks like the Midwestern farmer he plays. Berenger has also been in the popular baseball flick “Major League,” “Sniper” and “Training Day,” but his career-best effort earned him an Oscar nomination for playing a psychotic and vicious combat sergeant in “Platoon.”
John Heard plays hard-charging FBI supervisor “Michael ‘Mike’ Carnes” and once was Winger’s character’s boyfriend. He has targeted Berenger and he wants him served up on a platter and Heard did “hard-charging” well here. Heard has also been in “Big” with Tom Hanks, was the dad in “Home Alone” and its first sequel and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for his work as a doomed cop on HBO’s “The Sopranos.”
The most effective supporting actor is John Mahoney, who plays “Shorty.” He’s an older member of the group and is easygoing until you hear him tell Weaver in a campfire chat that he’s a good person, too, and has to “close my eyes every time I pull the trigger.” Mahoney delivers the perfect performance for the role. He is most recognized as the father from TV’s “Frasier” with Kelsey Grammer and has also been in Clint Eastwood’s “In the Line of Fire.”
As I wrote in a previous review, you’ll recognize Ted Levine instantly because of his gravelly voice. He does good work here as the ex-con “Wes” that Berenger has to call off Winger because Levine suspects she isn’t what she’s pretending. Levine was also “Lt. Leland Stottlemeyer” on TV’s “Monk” and was the serial killer “Jame Gumb” in the Oscar-winning “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Jeffrey DeMunn offers another great effort as the shadowy supremacist leader “Bobby Flynn.” DeMunn looks to revel in odd, twisted roles (check him out as a Russian serial killer in “Citizen X” – click here for my review). He’s calm, collected and vicious here. DeMunn has also been in “The Green Mile.”
The two child actors who portray Berenger’s kids are Maria Valdez and “Rachael Simmons” and Brian Bosak as “Joey Simmons.” Both have a couple of tough lines that must have been challenging, but most often are just kids. Both Valdez and Bosak notched their only acting credit here.
Costa-Gavras offers both not so subtle imagery (such as the blood pooling in the palm of the slain radio host) as well as subtle imagry (such as foreshadowing when Levine is shown wrapped in a plastic poncho in an early scene – much like the plastic wrap they would use for his body after he’s shot during the bank robbery).
“Betrayed” was the 39th ranked film of 1988 with $25.8 million in domestic ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It was right ahead of Chevy Chase in “Funny Farm” ($25.5 million) and far ahead of the equally good film “The Presidio” with Mark Harmon and Sean Connery (click here for my review)l, which had $20.3 million. The No. 1 film of the year was “Rain Man” with $172.8 million. Another top film that year was “Cocktail” (No. 9 with $78.2 million – click here for my review).
Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- Timothy Hutton, who has an uncredited role as a juggler in “Betrayed,” was married to Winger at the time of the production and release of the movie. Hutton, who won an Oscar for “Ordinary People,” was also in “The Falcon and the Snowman.”
- Berenger has been quoted as saying “Betrayed” is his favorite of all of his films.
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