Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969) was undoubtedly the first overtly political film I ever saw, and I’m sure that at the age of 15 I actually understood very little of it. (Hell, I was just proud of the fact that I got the joke when the general responded to the question as to whether he considered himself another Dreyfuss case by shouting, “Dreyfuss was guilty!” — and in all honesty I only understood it because I’d seen Paul Muni in the 1937 film The Life of Emile Zola.) What I did understand and respond to was the film’s in-your-face attitude — daring to announce its leftist political agenda with a special credit, “Any similarity to actual persons or events is deliberate,” boldly signed by Costa-Gavras and screenwriter Jorge Semprun. Bear in mind, this was 1969 — a mere year after we’d been treated to the jingoistic claptrap of John Wayne’s The Green Berets.
This seemed like the most daring work imaginable — a film that had the nerve not merely to suggest, but to outright state, that we were being systematically and deliberately brainwashed by the governments of the world. That it was a French film taking place in Greece hardly mattered. No one doubted that its implications went far further.
The shrewdness of the film lay in the fact that it told its story of the governmental cover-up and investigation by an examining magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) of the murder of a leftist political leader (Yves Montand) as a kind of mystery thriller, keeping the viewer entertained with craftsmanship and injecting political and ironic comment into the proceedings through its story and its increasingly outraged protagonist. The amazing thing is that it’s as fresh and cogent today as it was then — or perhaps it’s simply that real life has made it once again relevant. See it — your apathy may never be the same.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke