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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 26, 1988


Constantin Costa-Gavras
Debra Winger;
Tom Berenger;
John Heard;
Betsy Blair;
Ted Levine
Under 17 restricted

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A conspiracy of Caucasians goes to the white sheets, word processors and war games in "Betrayed," Constantin Costa-Gavras' assault on Klannish bigotry. But it goes a little too far -- to Hollywood -- to evoke realistic scares, and "Betrayed's" burning crosses provide more sparks for principals Tom Berenger and Debra Winger than light on the subject.

One day in White Supremacy, Nebraska (actually Movie Lot 15), pretty combine operator Katie Phillips (Winger) enters the love life of handsome farmer Gary Simmons (Berenger). But she's actually FBI agent Catherine Weaver, investigating the murder of left-wing radio personality Sam Kraus, who was gunned down and spray-painted with the letters ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government). Alleged vigilante Simmons is a prime suspect, according to Cathy's FBI supervisor Michael Carnes (John Heard). Initially, Cathy sees in Gary a decorated Vietnam veteran, a devoted father and, well, a man who looks an awful lot like Tom Berenger. By the time she uncovers a nationwide Klanspiracy, she's practically picked out a Melmac pattern.

Costa-Gavras ("Z," "Missing") and scriptwriter Joe ("Jagged Edge," "Flashdance") Ezterhas attempt to put a face on a faceless lunatic fringe. But they overreach, their dramatic ploy turning into white-bread caricature; their heavy-handedness is relieved only by Berenger's sensitively drawn, sweet and sinister performance. Gary says "Amen" loud and clear at a church sermon, then smirks self-consciously at his outburst; has an infectious, flirtatious air; is shy about his military medal; and can't bring himself to shoot his sick horse. He could be in a Levi's 501 jeans commercial.

But when the bigoted get going, the going gets tough. Gary shows Cathy his darker side far too quickly. And his daughter Rachel's innocently reiterated racism is too conventionally ironic: "One day we're going to kill all the Jews and the niggers and everything's going to be neat," she says sweetly to Cathy -- this just before bedtime.

And this after bedtime, from kindly old lyncher Shorty (John Mahoney): "I don't like it . . . I have to close my eyes every time I pull the trigger."

Except for one grimly harrowing scene in which the klan shows its true colors (and it's kind of a white-on-white scheme), "Betrayed" surprisingly pulls its punches. There's a lot of talk, and target practice, and bilious computer-networking, as the film ripens into an overblown Midwest setting for a boy-meets-girl thriller.

And a thriller without that much suspense, unfortunately. The opportunities abound -- Cathy must make surreptitious phone calls under the wary noses of the plotters -- but Costa-Gavras doesn't capitalize on them. And to add insult to unoriginality, he exits on a freeze-frame that leaves us with Hope for the Children of the World.

Constantin, have you been talking to Shorty?

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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