I haven’t tackled too many dark dramas or hideously violent ones (although the über-funny, über-gory and über-great “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
(NOTE: I reorganized this review and added both trivia and opinion as well as having updated the links on May 2, 2018. I cleaned up some typos and clarified a couple of details on Sept. 18, 2019 and note that when I first wrote this review, I had not written about many dark dramas – I’ve written more by today.)
“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 given a pistol and turned loose in the woods as the prey for men with submachine guns and dogs.
Just like a cancer eating away at a body, “Betrayed” shows the ongoing deterioration of Berenger and his group. While not hitting bottom in an obvious physical or debilitating emotional way, the group’s motivation and its hate manages to be the propellant in their downfall, too. At the same time, the undercover FBI agent finds her life diminished, too, even as she struggles in a fight against the bad guys.
In the end, the most obvious play on words is the film’s title, since both main characters find themselves betrayed – the bad guy by the woman he believes loves him and the FBI agent by her own emotional experience in the case.
“Betrayed” is mostly the story 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.
Here’s a look at some of the cast:
- A three-time Oscar nominee (not for this one), Debra Winger plays undercover agent “Catherine ‘Cathy’ Weaver” who’s calling herself “Katie Phillips.” She manages to hook up with the group leader, becomes intimate with him and ultimately derails his plot (I won’t spoil the film’s twists and turns here). Winger is superb in her effort as she pretends to be in synch with the group and is forced to rein in her horror. Winger is most remembered and got a nomination as Richard Gere’s love interest in “An Officer and a Gentleman” and her two other nominations with “Shadowlands” and grindingly annoying snifflebag called “Terms of Endearment.” She was simply terrific in “Urban Cowboy” with John Travolta, who, despite his very strange personal life, rarely disappoints in a film and his effort was without a doubt strengthened by Winger.
- An Oscar nominee (not for this one), 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 and probably most remembered for the popular baseball flick “Major League” (click here for my review). He was also in “Sniper” and “Training Day,” but his career-best effort earned him an Oscar nomination for playing a psychotic and vicious combat sergeant in “Platoon.” Berenger did good work in “The Big Chill” but also was in what is one of Hollywood’s worst-ever films translated from a novel: “The Dogs of War” – it’s a total embarrassment and probably not on Tom’s official resume since it’s nothing but a suppurating piece of dreck.
- A Primetime Emmy nominee, 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 (click here for my look at those films) and was nominated for his work as a doomed cop on HBO’s “The Sopranos.” He was in films as varied as the comedy “White Chicks” (click here for my review) and in the much more serious “In the Line of Fire” with Clint Eastwood (click here for my review). Heard died of a heart attack at 71 in 2017.
- The most effective supporting actor is two-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) John Mahoney, who plays “Shorty.” The actor, who was born in the U.K., portrays the eldest member of the group and he’s 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.” I would have liked to have seen more of his character. Mahoney delivers the perfect performance for the role. He is most recognized and got his nominations as the father from TV’s “Frasier” with Kelsey Grammer and, along with Heard, was Eastwood’s “In the Line of Fire” (click here for my review). He died at 77 in 2018 of a neurological disorder and lung cancer.
- As I wrote in another review about this actor, 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” (click here for my review). He did an underwhelming turn in the wickedly bad film reboot “Wild Wild West” with Will Smith (click here for my review) and had a small role in the terrific crime drama “Heat” with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino (click here for my review).
- A Primetime Emmy nominee, Jeffrey DeMunn offers another great effort as the shadowy supremacist leader “Bobby Flynn.” He immerses himself in the role so much that you expect to see him the next time a story comes on TV about one of the real supremacist groups. DeMunn obviously revels in odd, twisted roles (check him out in his nominated role as a Russian serial killer in “Citizen X” – click here for my review – or the back-stabbed and back-stabbing corporate executive in “Barbarians at the Gate” – click here for my review). In this one, he’s calm, collected and vicious. He’s also very convincing. 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 portraying kids being kids.
Both Valdez and Bosak notched their only film acting credit here. It remained in 2019 as the only acting credit for Valdez and Bosak worked on a TV mini-series in the 1990s.
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 imagery (such as foreshadowing when Levine is shown covered against a rainstorm 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). Here are the other films from that year that I’ve reviewed for this blog:
- “Caddyshack II” (sequel that’s crap) – click here for my review
- “Cocktail” (very good drama) – click here for my review
- “Die Hard” (great action) – click here for my review
- “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (great comedy) – click here for my review
- “Johnny Be Good” (crap) – click here for my review
- “License to Drive” (bad but funny youth flick) – click here for my review
- “Married to the Mob” (excellent drama) – click here for my review
- “Midnight Run” (really good De Niro) – click here for my review
- “Noble House” (great TV mini-series) – click here for my review
- “The Presidio” (excellent drama) – click here for my review
- “They Live” (not very good sci-fi) – click here for my review
- “Twins” (simply terrific Arnie-DeVito comedy) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film 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.
- Productions do live on after an actor has died. Although he passed away in 2017, Heard has three acting credits in 2018 (two films and a short) as well as one film completed and another in post-production with release dates set for 2018.
- I don’t know if I can say “oddly enough,” but Berenger was a nominee for a Primetime Emmy for a guest appearance on “Cheers” in 1982. He won an Emmy for “Hatfields and McCoys” in 2012.
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “According to Joe Eszterhas‘ book ‘Hollywood Animal,’ everybody on set was afraid of Debra Winger as she was known for having a difficult temper, but Winger proved the rumors to be wrong. Tom Berenger was so intimidated by her that Winger had to make coffee for him and kid with him the entire time to put him on ease. Winger also spent one entire night playing poker with the crew to ease them. By the end of the shoot everybody was in love with her.”
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