Video Vault: Political thriller 'Z' finds tension in facts, fiction

Will Pfeifer

Don’t let the fact that “Z” is a subtitled film based on an event you’ve never heard of keep you from watching. Instead, consider it a conspiracy thriller with all the elements that make conspiracies thrilling: political intrigue, high-level corruption and a massive cover-up.

Greek director Costa-Gavras based “Z” on the actual 1963 assassination of left-wing activist Gregoris Lambrakis, but you don’t have to know anything about that to get caught up in this fictional tale. From the opening titles, when Gavras boldly states, “Any similarity to real persons and events is not coincidental — it is intentional,” you know you’re in the hands of a bold filmmaker. This is no dry slog through pseudo-historical events. It’s a fast-paced sprint packed driven by flashbacks, jump cuts, jarring editing and other dramatic film tricks.

Though “Z” takes place in an unnamed, fictional country, everything about it feels authentic. A left-wing politician known as The Deputy (Yves Montand) arrives and plans to speak to his many supporters. The right-wing government is eager to eliminate the competition and, after forcing him to speak in a too-small hall, arranges for him to be killed in a faked accident. They blame a drunken driver, but the Deputy’s aides and wife suspect government involvement, and a search begins for the truth.

Much of “Z” takes place after that “accident” as we watch two plot threads unfold and intersect. The increasingly nervous government officials work to cover their tracks while a surprisingly dedicated prosecutor and photojournalist do their best to expose them. At times, “Z” feels like that other great initials-only conspiracy thriller, “JFK,” and it’s obvious that Costa-Gavras’ work had a big influence on Oliver Stone.

What’s surprising about “Z” is how it looks like it’s ending on an upbeat note, then throws a bucket of cold reality in the audience’s face. After we see the bad guys arrested, our photojournalist friend brings us brutally up to date with a litany of “accidental” deaths, shortened sentences, political deals and a military coup. Then, suddenly, a narration informs us the journalist received “three years for disclosure of official documents,” and the movie ends with a list of things banned by the new regime: long hair, miniskirts, Sophocles, Tolstoy, strikes, freedom of the press, Mark Twain, the Beatles ... and the letter “Z.”

The movie explains that, in ancient Greek, “Z” means “he lives,” as it shows an image of Lambrakis, the real politician whose real death led to Greece’s real military coup. It’s an ending that manages to be devastating and rousing. No wonder “Z” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Will Pfeifer writes about DVDs for the Rockford Register Star. Contact him at wpfeifer@rrstar.com or 815-987-1244. Read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/movieman. See video reviews at go.rrstar.com.

Fire at Will: Land rush? Oil strike? What’s the movie?

Deb Oliver of Rockton, Ill., writes with this question: “I have often thought about the title of the first movie I ever saw. This would be in the ‘50s or early ’60s. It was about a land rush, probably in the 1800s. One of the men rushing falls and has to place his stake near the start line. He strikes oil! If you knew the title, is there a way to be able to see this again?”

Deb, I think the movie you might be thinking of is “Cimarron,” which hit theaters in 1960. A sprawling Western starring Glenn Ford and directed by Anthony Mann, it was nominated for Best Picture, but lost the Oscar to Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment.”

I’ve never seen “Cimarron,” but I know it (a) involves the land rush and (b) has a character get rich by striking oil. Hope this is the movie you’re looking for. It is available on DVD.

Send your questions to wpfeifer@rrstar.com. Put “Fire at Will” in the subject line, and I’ll do my best to find and answer and share it in this column. Please include your full name, city of residence and daytime phone number (which isn’t for publication).

From the Vault: It's a conspiracy!

Here are four movies to make you feel like the world is conspiring against you.

“JFK” (1991): Whatever you might think of Oliver Stone’s theory about who killed Kennedy, there’s no denying that this movie is a masterpiece of editing and direction (and misdirection). Stone uses every trick in the book, then invents more than a few.

“The Parallax View” (1974): Warren Beatty plays a reporter who thinks he’s uncovered a secret organization dedicated to training and deploying assassins. The truth is, they’ve discovered him. Be sure not to miss the brainwashing sequence, which is filmed so it’s not just getting into Beatty’s head — it’s getting into yours, too.

“All the President’s Men” (1976): Also directed by Alan J. Pakula, it’s even more fact-based than “Z” — and even more complex. Woodward and Bernstein (Redford and Hoffman) follow the money all the way to the White House, and the miracle is, no matter how tricky the plot gets (or how many times you’ve seen it), it’s always an exciting journey.

“The Manchurian Candidate” (1962): Released the year before the event that inspired “JFK” happened, this Cold War masterpiece makes the bold claim that the anti-Communists are secretly controlled by the Communists, and that they’re all working for Angela Lansbury.