Sunday 29 May 2022

Movie Review: Betrayed (1988)

A crime drama, romance, and thriller, Betrayed ventures into the sub-culture of white supremacists corroding American society.

In Chicago, controversial Jewish radio talk show host Sam Kraus (Richard Libertini) is gunned down. In America's rural farmland, undercover FBI Agent Cathy Weaver (Debra Winger) gets close to farmer Gary Simmons (Tom Berenger), who is suspected of involvement in Kraus's murder. Cathy and Gary fall in love, and she insists to her boss and ex-lover Mike Carnes (John Heard) that Gary is a wholesome family man with no crime connections.

But then Gary introduces Cathy to his secret life as a white supremacist leader. He leads midnight hunts of Black men, and is plotting bank robberies and terrorist activities in the name of defending whites against Jews and Blacks. Meanwhile, a thinly veiled racist politician is running for President and seeking support from men like Gary. With Mike pressuring her to delve deeper and find more evidence, Cathy is alone and stranded with dangerous men.

Written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Costa-Gavras, Betrayed is a remarkably prescient exploration of a toxic belief system quietly undermining a nation. But despite shining a necessary spotlight on violent racism hiding in plain sight, the film is only average. The problems reside with the investigative half of the narrative, Eszterhas paying scant attention to basic discipline and procedures. 

Cathy's assignment is reduced to being thrown into the field, left on her own, and badgered to gather more evidence, her ex-lover of a boss Mike abusing his authority like a jilted bully child. And as she uncovers a group of terrorists plotting multiple atrocities, Mike remains bizarrely fixated on the talk show host murder. The conspiracy elements are also patchy, leading to a rushed and contrived climax. Costa-Gavras holds onto secrets for too long, then fails to adequately explain why they matter or how various terrorist acts and crimes are intended to fit together. 

Which is unfortunate. The rest of the drama works well, demonstrating evil's easy charm, Cathy falling for a wholesome image and in love with a rugged man who appears to be a good father and dedicated farmer. The veil is lifted once Gary introduces her to his secret life of hunting Black men, conspiring over computer networks with other supremacist cells, indoctrinating children, and plotting violent crimes. This is the Ku Klux Klan functioning in the slightest shadows, exploiting fear of the "other" while plotting with far-reaching ambition and activating the political machine to place a white supremacist in the White House. The horror is obscene, and all too real.

Debra Winger and Tom Berenger do their parts without stretching. She buys into Cathy's naivete and he encourages Gary's singular expression to make the plot work. Sloppiness undermines the intention to deliver a taut dramatic thriller, but Betrayed is nevertheless shockingly relevant.

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