States of Siege

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

by Albert F. Nussbaum

I’m a contentious SOB. I’d rather knock you down than walk around you. However, if someone else knocked you down first, I’d probably pause long enough to help you up, brush you off, and tell the next man in line that you’re not a bad guy. A paradox? Sure it is, but if you’ve reached the age of puberty you should know that life isn’t always fair, and action and reaction aren’t always logical even when they are sincere.

This may explain why I’m writing about State of Siege, though. After reading critiques that found fault with its intellectual, artistic, and political content, I finally saw the film and wasn’t particularly troubled by these things. In fact, I liked it. Very much. I thought it was a good film and I hope the next guy who comes along doesn’t knock it unfairly.

Despite the negative reaction State of Siege has provoked, I’m not embarrassed to find myself praising it. I’m sure I saw it differently, both literally and figuratively, than the critics. For one thing, I doubt it has been screened inside any prison except this one. For another, I think the film should be judged by what was on the screen, not by what was left out; by what was said, not by what was unspoken. And the final judge of whether a film has something to communicate isn’t the critics—it’s the audience. That’s the lesson we learned from Billy Jack, right?

Well, State of Siege was perfect for the audience here. It seems to have been aimed at people who are naïve, but not blasé. Once the men got over their surprise at what the film is about (the kidnapping and assassination of a U.S. police official in a South American country, and his unmasking as an imperialist pawn), you would have had to set off a bomb to distract them from the screen. Most of them had never expected to see anything so strongly critical of U.S. policy and methods.

Sure, the camerawork is intrusive, the direction heavyhanded, and the story melodramatic. The film has all of these faults and more, but I didn’t hear anyone ask his neighbor, “What’s happening?” The quick cuts save time and reduce confusion, the direction focuses attention, and the melodrama holds it. State of Siege is aimed at the mass audience, not the esoterically educated few. It is nourishment for starved psyches, and Costa-Gavras knew better than to gorge them. They must he spoon-fed.

Several years ago I was in a prison art class when one of the convicts first learned that it is possible to mix two colors and get a third one. He was over 40 years old, but until then he hadn’t known that blue and yellow make green, or that red and yellow make orange. The discovery had him jumping around like a kid. State of Siege generated much the same kind of excitement here. The audience was discovering that the expression of ideas and the revelation of truths are as rich in potential as any artist’s palette.

Of course, State of Siege isn’t the film one might expect after seeing Z. Myself, I think it would have been better if the scenes had followed chronological order and the announcement that it was based on fact had been saved for the end. Others have found fault with both selection and content of scenes, but I can’t agree. Though the film lacks unity, the power of many individual scenes can’t be ignored. Their effect may be subliminal, but it is real. And it appears to be cumulative.

It is so difficult to make even a poor film that when a film does serve a higher purpose than mere entertainment and diversion, when it does meet the needs of an audience, it’s a disservice to ignore its virtues, to magnify its flaws. There are a great number of people whose lives are as “sheltered” as any prisoner’s. State of Siege is for them. When it’s difficult to get through a day without having your impotence demonstrated in a dozen ways, it’s comforting to know that long-established policy can be questioned, that opposition is possible. That is the service I saw State of Siege perform. I thank Costa-Gavras for it.

1974: Albert L. Nussbaum is serving a 40-year sentence for multiple bank robberies at the U.S. Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois. His writing has appeared in a wide range of publications including Take One, Cineaste, The American Scholar, and Harper’s Magazine.
2015: Nussbaum won parole soon after writing for Movietone News. He died a free man in 1996. —Ed.

STATE OF SIEGE
Direction: Costa-Gavras. Screenplay: Franco Solinas, Costa-Gavras. Cinematography: Pierre-William Glenn. Editing: Françoise Bonnot. Music: Mikis Theodorakis. Production: Jacques Perrin.
The Players: Yves Montand, O.E. Hasse, Jean-Luc Bideau, Maurice Teynac, André Falcon.

Copyright © 1974 Albert F. Nussbaum