(director: Costa-Gavras; screenwriter: Joe Eszterhas; cinematographer: Patrick Blossier; editor: Joƫle Van Effenterre; music: Bill Conti; cast: Debra Winger (Katie Phillips / Cathy Weaver), Tom Berenger (Gary Simmons), John Heard (Michael Carnes), John Mahoney (Shorty), Betsy Blair (Gladys Simmons), Ted Levine (Wes), Wally Marsh (Bureau Chief), Richard Libertini (Sam Kraus), Clifford A. Pellow (Reverend Russell Johnson); Runtime: 127; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Irving Winkler; MGM Home Video; 1988)

A heavy slog of a political thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A heavy slog of a political thriller. It goes on for too long, and is let down by an ill-advised subplot about former FBI lovers and a contrived plot that diverts any build-up of tension. Director Costa-Gavras (“Amen”/”Capital”/”Eden is West”) has trouble showing he’s got anything left in the tank after his brilliant “Z” (1968). The screenplay by Joe Eszterhas is convoluted and is never convincing that it has its finger on the pulse of Corn Belt white extremism, and is further besmirched by an implausible romance between the confused FBI agent and the sinister main suspect under investigation. Seems more fantasy than real, as one has to suspend belief to give the melodrama a pass.

Controversial Chicago Jewish radio host Sam Kraus (Richard Libertini) is assassinated in his parking garage by gun-totting white supremacists, who spray paint his white car with ZOG. The Chicago FBI office sends the inexperienced Cathy Weaver (Debra Winger) on her first undercover assignment, to infiltrate the group of farmers they have reason to believe are responsible for the crime and are located in the Midwest. Using the alias Katie Phillips and posing as a combine worker from Texas, she meets the main suspect, Gary Simmons (Tom Berenger), a clean-cut farmer, Vietnam War hero and widower with two small children. Cathy falls in love with the handsome charmer, refusing to see his sinister side. Meanwhile her FBI boss and former lover, Michael Carnes (John Heard), refuses to take her off the case despite knowing his agent has compromised the investigation and finds ways to use her amorally in the investigation.

We observe that the Corn Belt community looks wholesome on the outside, but inside it’s rotten with a simmering hatred. Gary’s sweet grandma (Betsy Blair) makes “the best white cake in the whole white world,” folksy farmers walk around in coveralls cracking racist jokes, the racist white preacher (Clifford A. Pellow) tells his flock “We’re God’s chosen people, the true descendants of the lost tribes” and Gary on occasion goes on rants against Jews and blacks. Gary decides to let his future wife into his extremist activities, of trying to establish a separate white nation in the heart of the Midwest, and takes her out one night with his fellow rednecks to show her how they chase down a black man in the wheat fields and murder him. We also learn that ZOG stands for Zionest Occupational Government, what the extremist group contemptuously claim has infiltrated the American government.

By the last act things come apart with the story becoming too absurd, and any intelligence or credibility or solid performances by the leads is jettisoned for Hollywood schlock and superficiality. The title is derived from the fact that both the FBI agents and the extremists are both viewed as monsters because of their tactics and beliefs,The Berenger character is viewed as a true believer, who never compromises his true values even if they’re wacko anti-social.

The movie is loosely based on the real incident of left-wing radio personality Alan Berg murdered by a white supremacist group called The Order.