By Mark Danner
May 27, 2015
SANTORE (impatient): We inevitably end up speaking of politics . . .
HIS INTERROGATOR (ironic): Inevitably . . .
Revolutionary times are times of revelation: they uncover and flood with light what has long been darkly buried. Implicit in the above exchange between a kidnapped Philip Michael Santore (Yves Montand) and his masked Tupamaro inquisitor, Hugo (Jacques Weber), in Costa-Gavras’s State of Siege (1972) is the unassailable conviction that politics forms the hidden skeleton of our world. Anyone who can be bothered to dig beneath the surface quickly strikes his shovel against these grim, intractable bones, the ossified determinants of who holds power and who does not. Looming invisibly over the interrogation is Costa-Gavras, supremely aware that he wields in his lens a uniquely effective kind of shovel. Indeed, this to him is what the cinema is: “a way of showing, exposing the political processes in our everyday life.”
To show, to expose: cinema in this view shares the task of revolution itself. “The strong do what they will,” observed Thucydides. “The weak suffer what they must.” And so it has always been—until it is not. To the revolutionary winds of the late sixties even tiny, comfortable, welfare-state Uruguay, the vaunted “Switzerland of Latin America,” proved not to be immune. Wool prices collapsed, and Uruguay’s economy quickly followed; thousands lost their jobs; inflation surged; student radicals, labor leaders, and young leftist politicians transmuted into charismatic revolutionaries who launched daring robberies, planted bombs, kidnapped diplomats—even United States Agency for International Development “traffic and communications technicians.” This is the designation to which, during his interrogation, Costa-Gavras’s antihero, “agent of imperialism” Philip Michael Santore, will doggedly cling. It is his cover story, of course—his interrogator knows this as well as he—but Santore’s claim holds within it a deeper truth. His “technical support” may be of a different kind—training police in interrogation and repression, in the use of electroshock machines and other methods of torture—but in rendering support to the established order, Santore doesn’t think of himself as political at all. As a policeman, he is the established order. “Our vocationis order,” Santore explains to the masked Hugo, and prodded to define exactly “what kind of order,” he erupts with a gruffly superior affirmation of what seems to him obvious: “Civil order! The opposite of chaos, theft, and looting.” He is adamant that maintaining such order is not a matter of politics. Not so for Hugo and his colleagues, nor for Costa-Gavras and his. Order built on injustice—“the order of the United Fruit Company”—can be nothing but political. By kidnapping Santore and interrogating him for the world to see, the Tupamaros seek to prove this reality to their fellow citizens. By looking over their shoulders—Costa-Gavras and his scriptwriter, Franco Solinas, arrived in Montevideo to investigate precisely a year after these events, then shot the film in Salvador Allende’s socialist Chile—the makers of State of Siege mean to show and expose them to a wider world.
Costa-Gavras’s film is not a whodunit but a how-was-it-done—to borrow a neat phrase about his masterpiece Z, released three years before. And as with Z, the how-was-it-done concerns not only the particular, gripping events—the story of a political assassination and its cover-up; the tale of how a certain American “technician” met his end in a Latin American republic mired in a guerrilla war and a state of siege—but also how power is applied and exerted, how the structures of control, some secret, some all too evident, are imposed and maintained. Both films are based on and closely follow the outlines of true stories—in the case of State of Siege, the kidnapping in Montevideo, during the politically fraught summer of 1970, of American Daniel Anthony Mitrione, fifty, formerly chief of police of the small town of Richmond, Indiana, father of nine, and at the time an employee of the U.S. government’s Office of Public Safety, a part of USAID. Here again, Costa-Gavras and his scriptwriter work by overthrowing the traditional lineaments of the thriller: we begin with the ending and work backward. “We start the movie with the American being killed, we see his burial, we see the ceremony,” Costa-Gavras observed in 2009. “The idea was not to play with that idea: he will be killed or he won’t be killed. It was to follow the story a different way . . . Yes. He’s dead. But who is he, and what is he doing?”
Or in the words of Carlos Ducas (O. E. Hasse), the canny old leftist journalist who takes the director’s place as the viewer’s Virgil in this journey into the Uruguayan inferno, “Who is this . . . Mr. Santore really?” The film’s masterly opening sequence, from the moody first glimpse of the dark green Cadillac that (we will learn) serves as Santore’s sepulchre to the ubiquitous searches and identity checks carried out by the ubiquitous soldiers and policemen of a city in the grip of a state of siege—soldiers on the pedestrian bridges, soldiers fanning out (in a gorgeous image) over the roofs of houses: all the dark, alluring glamour of which the security state is capable—serves to invest this central question with an unbearable degree of suspense: Who is he really?
The grand funeral in the cathedral will offer one answer: “Philip Michael Santore knew poverty and dedicated his life to fighting it,” the papal nuncio intones. “And he was able to save many young people, turning them into decent citizens.” The intercut memories of his widow, recalling what she has been told in an embassy presentation, offer another: she and her husband, a State Department official tells her and her fellow foreign service wives, “are supposed to stand for our civilization, for our ideals, and for our way of life.”
Given the scenes of torture soon to come—including the unforgettable “torture class” in which gathered officers watch as a naked, blindfolded prisoner onstage is savagely shocked through his teeth, eyes, nipples, and genitals—these words may seem to carry heavy irony. Not for Santore. Pressed by his interrogator—“You claim to defend freedom and democracy. Your methods are war, fascism, and torture”—Santore will finally put forward his defense without apology and with considerable eloquence. “You’re just subversives, Communists,” he declares. “You want to destroy the foundation of our society, the fundamental values of our Christian civilization, the very existence of the free world. You’re an enemy to be fought by any means necessary.” Much more eloquence and clarity, in fact, than his real-life model was able to muster, or anyway cared to. We have those transcripts—the Tupamaros released them, as they released everything, for the public’s education—and they make melancholy reading: the ingratiating voice of a man of power suddenly rendered powerless, struggling to appear sincere, to win back his life. To the Tupamaro interrogator’s self-regarding question “What do you think about us?” Mitrione offers qualified praise: “You do a pretty good job. You do a pretty good job. You’re well organized. You must have good leaders.” To the interrogator’s assertion that there are many torturers, “and we will kill every one of them, sooner or later,” Mitrione offers an anodyne “I hope—let me say this—I hope you get the problems solved before you have to kill any more on either side. That doesn’t accomplish anything, really.”
Hardly “the highly polished Cold War dialectician” (in the words of historian Mark Falcoff) embodied by Yves Montand as a suave, precise technocrat, an “agent of imperialism” capable, when pressed, of ideological combat of the highest sophistication. Our first glimpse of (the living) Santore is through the eyes of his Tupamaro shadows, as, lithe and disciplined, he performs his morning stretching exercises behind a plate-glass window. He is beautiful, precise, formidable, a far cry from the overweight, cigar-puffing, small-town Midwestern police chief the Tupamaros would execute that austral winter of 1970. Santore is a man whom one could imagine captaining the entire ideological crusade against leftist subversion in Latin America, bringing not only electroshock machines secreted in diplomatic pouches but also his own unerring sophistication about the methods of counterterror, from torture to death squads to agents provocateurs. Montand brilliantly embodies this figure, a kind of superman of Yankee subversion—a man willing and able, to defend a liberal order that he believes to be identical with civilization itself, to use any methods at all—and as in Z,where he has even less screen time, the glamour and charisma of his portrayal are crucial to the film’s success.
It was only three months before Mitrione’s kidnapping, in April 1970, that a Uruguayan multiparty parliamentary commission concluded that “the system of mistreatment, brutality, and torture used against prisoners by the police of Montevideo has become habitual and, so to speak, normal.” Such brutality included “everything from simple personal mistreatment with word or deed, blows, brutalities, deprivation of water and food, prohibition to take care of physiological needs in the usual places, wrenching of limbs, use of handcuffs and other painful and unnecessary bonds, to the use of electrical needles, burning genital organs and anus, etc., with cigarettes.” The report and its conclusions, portions of which we see read out in parliament during an important scene, are historical facts. Is it also a historical fact that, as the police commissioner in charge of the information bureau, Alejandro Otero, told a Brazilian journalist, it was “Mitrione who introduced systematic torture into Uruguay”? Or was he there, as State Department and U.S. embassy officials insisted to the New York Times in 1970, “to encourage responsible and humane police administration”? The questions would seem to answer themselves, though one needn’t read far into the case to realize that, under the Cold War ideological struggle being waged in Latin America at the time, U.S. advisers had come up with a liberal rationalization for torture that, set beside Latin America’s traditional methods, would be “scientific” and even “humane.” “Word was passed,” writes A. J. Langguth, author of the most thorough history of the Mitrione case,Hidden Terrors, “that the CIA could supply more than tear gas, that the laboratories of the [Technical Services Division] in Washington, and its branch in Panama, were developing devices to make the pain so sharp that a prisoner would break quickly and not force a police interrogator to hurt him repeatedly.”
If tear gas could make riot control more humane, why could not proper electroshock machines do the same for interrogations? And weren’t more humane methods a vital part of the cold warrior’s role in protecting “the fundamental values of Christian civilization”? In this line of reasoning, Santore embodies a willed imperial blindness shared by those who sent him to Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and finally Uruguay. Writ large, such rationalization echoes what an unnamed U.S. major famously declared in 1968 of the South Vietnamese village of Ben Tre: “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.” So it was with Cold War liberal internationalism in Latin America’s Southern Cone, which by the 1970s was becoming increasingly a facade that no longer served to cloak effectively the “war, fascism, and torture” meant to save it. It’s no accident that by the end of State of Siege, Ducas’s enunciation of the word democracy has become almost unbearable in its tortured irony.
We will never know if Mitrione—whose motto was claimed to be “The right pain in the right place at the right time”—credited such self-serving rationalizations. It seems possible that Montand’s precise technocrat, Santore, with his emphasis on “scientific technique” and “civil control,” might well have done. One clear result seems to have been that torture, which was certainly already present in Uruguay before Mitrione’s arrival, became more systematic, more prevalent, and harsher. Another was that, as Commissioner Otero noted, “The violent methods beginning to be employed caused an escalation in Tupamaro activity. Before then . . . they would use violence only as a last resort.”
Perhaps such escalation was welcomed by Mitrione’s colleagues, since it inevitably cut into the Tupamaros’ considerable popularity, as did the cold-blooded murder of Mitrione himself. In Costa-Gavras and Solinas’s complex narrative reconstruction, the who-is-Santore plot unfolds beside, and intersects with, the how-will-he-come-to-die plot. The latter is indeed a tale of escalation, of a kidnapping begun, as so many Tupamaro “actions” were, as an exercise in politics and propaganda, as a way to strip the coverings off the face of power by forcing Uruguayans (led by Ducas and his journalist colleagues) to ask, “Who is this . . .Santore?”—but one that goes terribly wrong and leads not to the freeing of 150 political prisoners but to the execution of Santore. The jaunty, almost lighthearted tone of the kidnappings themselves, little comedic set pieces floating buoyantly on Mikis Theodorakis’s brilliantly winsome music, gives way to something much darker, as the fortuitous capture of key Tupamaro leaders leads the weak, failing government to conclude that it is within a few arrests of destroying its guerrilla antagonists once and for all. This belief is wrong, even desperate—but in 1970, it was enough, together with the abrupt removal of veteran Tupamaros from the decision-making level, not only to doom Mitrione but also to destroy the last vestiges of Uruguayan democracy. Late on the day that his body was found, Uruguay’s parliament decreed a full-on state of emergency, suspending rights of property, assembly, freedom of expression, and liberty. As counterterror had been employed to fight terror, the old order had given way not to revolution but to dictatorship.
Franco Solinas had been here before, of course, with The Battle of Algiers (1966), Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece and perhaps the greatest political film ever made. Was it modesty that led Solinas to forbear to mention, during the striking sequences in State of Siege set at the International Police Academy in Washington, D.C., that the curriculum of that school provided for a screening, on a student’s third Friday afternoon, of a “movie on the battle of Algiers, with commentary by a colonel”? Mirrors within mirrors: The gathered police officers, whom we see resplendent in their uniforms from across Latin America, southern Europe, and Africa, would have spent that Friday afternoon in Washington learning from Pontecorvo and Solinas’s work the principles of subversion and insurgency, and, in detail, the grim methods, from counterterror to torture, judged necessary to combat them. By then, it is safe to assume, many of the security agencies of the countries of the Southern Cone—with the exception, perhaps, of Allende’s Chile—had had their own screenings of The Battle of Algiers, teaching the methods that the French paratrooper Colonel Mathieu brought with him while willfully rejecting Pontecorvo and Solinas’s larger point: that in the end, such techniques often do not work, that though the French won the battle of Algiers, they did so even as they lost the Algerian War. It is a lesson that, by profession, perhaps, the masters of security seem fated not to learn; come 2003, and suddenly mired in an Iraq War they had expected to be a “cakewalk,” the United States military’s directorate of Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict would schedule its own special screening of The Battle of Algiers—at the Pentagon. Long before then, of course, Allende’s Chile had collapsed at the hands of just the sort of grim collaboration set out so skillfully in State of Siege, and Costa-Gavras had gone on to make Missing (1982), a film that probes more deeply American responsibility, and obliviousness. By then as well, the United States itself would have reverted to torture at its own secret prisons, called “black sites,” and done so not by claiming that “scientific torture” was more humane than the alternative but by insisting that waterboarding (which, under the rubric el submarino, had been a favorite of Latin American military regimes) and the accompanying beatings, stress positions, and sleep deprivation were not torture at all.
All this, too, was exposed to the light, most recently in a report by the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, released on December 9, 2014, with a speech on the Senate floor by Senator Dianne Feinstein. Meantime, the regimes of the Southern Cone, Uruguay and Chile among them, are once again democracies, though democracies constructed on the bones of thousands of the disappeared and tens of thousands of the tortured. Should we take any solace from the fact that, even today, one of the latter rules as Chile’s president? It seems clear that neither Costa-Gavras nor Solinas would. The hopeful, determined final image of State of Siege (“The aging porter” at the airport, his eyes—the script tells us—“calm, patient, without curiosity—but always watching” as Santore’s successor arrives) stands unfulfilled. No revolution triumphed; the buried bones of power, exposed to the bright light, slipped back into the dark earth. Looking at the film four decades after it was made, perhaps we can be forgiven for seeing in that watchful figure not only the waiting revolutionary but also the artist himself, determined to dig, to show, to expose what so many others are content to leave buried.
Mark Danner has reported on war and politics for three decades, from Central America to Bosnia to Iraq. He teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and Bard College and is the author of The Massacre at El Mozote, Torture and Truth, and Stripping Bare the Body,among other books.