COSTA-GAVRAS FOR Z (1969)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
John Schlesinger for Midnight Cowboy
George Roy Hill for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Arthur Penn for Alice’s Restaurant
Sydney Pollack for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
Costa-Gavras’ Z has the next decade of American political thrillers all figured out. The cool paranoia of The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor has direct roots in the sangfroid of this Best Foreign Language Film-winning fictionalization of a real political hit job, a real cover-up, and the real reverberations felt throughout Greece. The director’s dry perversion of the usual disclaimer, stating that any resemblance to actual events or persons “is purely intentional,” draws into focus the implicit political critique aimed at the Greek authorities for the duration of the film. Costa Gavras’ and Jorge Semprún’s adaptation of Vassilis Vassilikos’ novel rings with the truth of government ineptitude: in contrast to the omnipotent and airtight schemes of Hollywood’s conspiracy fantasies, the culprits in this story are a group of military thugs who have ham-handedly incapacitated the head of the opposition, then clumsily tried to cover it up. These figures are not scary because they’re criminal geniuses, but because they’re powerful. After Jean-Louis Trintignant rather handily exposes their crimes and indicts the lot, the conclusion to the film undercuts this triumph in multiple stunning reversals, producing a discordant conclusion bemoaning the brute political reality of subsequent Greek history.
Costa-Gavras assembles his film with a seething energy, driven by the imperative of a still-timely protest—the film’s title, slang for “he lives,” was still a banned political expression in Greece at the time of the film’s release. From the opening montage of military decorations to the rudely curtailed new media epilogue, the film sustains its momentum through Mikis Theodorakis’ vivace scoring and the frenzied concentration of Françoise Bonnot’s editing (most memorably, in the angular verve of freeze-frame sequence analyzing the assassination). The film’s main power, however, comes from the tension between the performers: the unshakable fortitude of the nameless heroes (Trintignant’s investigator, Jacques Perrin’s journalist), the spooked arrogance of the military brass (headed by the fantastically bewildered Pierre Dux as the general), and the distraught, raw emotionality of Irene Papas’ distraught investigator’s wife), a resounding reminder of the political game’s grim stakes.
After a decade of foreign language filmmakers cracking the Best Director ranks, the international zeitgeist of Z finally broke into the Best Picture ranks after a 30-year English language monopoly. But when we last left the 1969 Best Director race, I was ready to go ahead and give my vote for Sydney Pollack’s profound directorial debut, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Since They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was inexcusably shut out from the Best Picture race, I’ve little trouble in making this a split year. Costa-Gavras’ urgent political thriller is handily my vote for Best Picture, while the director will have to settle for second place by a hair, behind Pollack’s gritty examination of stamina, hope, and the human spirit.