"Z" (1969) resembles a Hollywood-style political thriller in many ways, including a pounding musical score, a serpentine plot and multiple chase scenes. It is exciting based solely on these elements, but what distinguishes "Z" from other genre films is director Costa-Gavras' ability to depict the chaos and complexity of a tragic event that can't be pared down to a single narrative strand or resolved by a single heroic figure.
The film, based on the book of the same title by Vassilis Vassilikos, is set in an unnamed country, but is based loosely on the real-life assassination in 1953 of Greek activist Gregoris Lambakis. The assassination was officially labeled a traffic accident at the time, but investigation revealed a complex murder plot backed by military and government officials.
In "Z" the Lambakis figure is played by Yves Montand and named only as The Doctor. He is billed as the movie's star but checks out rather quickly. The film diffuses its narrative among multiple characters from two-bit hoodlums to buffoonish military officials to the closest thing we have to a protagonist, the intrepid Magistrate (prosecutor) played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. In a film full of corrupt, incompetent and self-interested people he is the most admirable character, pursuing the truth methodically and without histrionics.
Casting the Magistrate as the hero is symptomatic of the ways in which "Z" differs from the typical political thriller. He appears almost exclusively while sitting behind a desk and barely shows any sign of emotion from behind his dark glasses, a neat bit of contra-type casting for the normally more expressive Trintignant. When righteous justice arrives at the end, he simply asks each of the accused for their "First name, last name, profession." Vengeance serves no useful function in the pursuit of justice and justice itself is temporary when a new government (or military junta) can come in and change the law as displayed by the horribly depressing coda that viciously undercuts any sense of uplifting victory. Imagine Sly Stallone standing victorious over Apollo Creed in "Rocky 2" with music swelling… and then dropping dead of a heart attack. "Yo, Adri... (thump)"
Yet "Z" is not a cool, clinical policier either. The attack on the Doctor is followed by a remarkable action sequence in the back of a speeding pick-up that could be taken from any Hollywood action flick (at least in the pre-CGI era when scenes were actually staged and filmed.) Comic relief appears in the form of one of the eventual low level fall guys Vago (Marcel Bozzuffi) and a dogged photojournalist (Jacques Perrin) whose omnipresence borders on the mystical.
The film owes its success in no small part to the great cinematographer Raoul Coutard, most famous for his 60s collaborations with Jean-Luc Godard. With Godard, he mastered the naturalist on-the-fly style that rapidly became ubiquitous even in Hollywood cinema. Here, his mobile camera captures the sense of chaos as crowds swell and disperse and action takes place on multiple planes. It's like being fully immersed (a sense bolstered by the rich, ambient sound track) in a crisis as it explodes and swirls around the viewer, the sort of work that gets labeled as "documentary-like" even though that term has no real meaning.
"Z" launched Costa-Gavras to international stardom, netting a jury prize and Best Actor (Trintignant) at Cannes the Best Foreign Picture Oscar, one of the rare cases in which the Academy voters didn't screw up this often embarrassing category. He never quite matched the success of his breakthrough film, but scored a major coup when he won the Palme d'Or for "Missing" (1982), an English-language film with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. Nonetheless, "Z" remains his defining film, one which sealed his reputation as a respected auteur permanently.
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The restored high-def transfer is supervised by Raoul Coutard and looks as sharp as you would expect from Criterion. It preserves a fine grainy look and its inky black sets just the right mood for this dark political exposé.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. It sounded good to me (non-audiophile that I am) and did justice to the booming score by Mikis Theodorakis. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
The film is accompanied by a commentary track by film scholar Peter Cowie (recorded for Criterion in 2009).
The DVD includes a 2009 interview with Costa-Gavras (19 min.) and a 2009 interview with Raoul Coutard (11 min.)
The "From the Archives" feature includes several older interviews: author Vassilis Vassilikos (1967, 10 min.) and two other interviews Costa-Gavras and various cast members (1968, 5 min. and 1969, 3 min. each)
A Trailer is the only other extra.
The insert booklet features an essay by Criterion-favorite Armond White.
Successful as both an action film and a document of its turbulent time, "Z" is a landmark in the political thriller genre, one which influenced many films to follow. It alternates tone masterfully moving from hectic chase scenes to cool, toned-down legal hearings. It's indispensable viewing for anyone interested in the instability and violence that marked world politics in the late 60s (and through the 70s) and a film that will appeal to a wide audience. If you've got friends who don't like those movies where you have to read subtitles, this is a good film to steer then towards.