August 29, 1988 12:00 PM

On the heels of the religious furor ignited by Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ comes another hot-topic film sure to stir things up inside and outside movie houses. The subject is racism in America. And who better to tackle the theme than Costa-Gavras, the Russian-Greek director of such classic political thrillers as Z, State of Siege and Missing? The film opens vividly with the brutal killing of a liberal Chicago radio host, played by Richard Libertini in a galvanizing cameo. Then the scene switches to the Midwest farm belt, where FBI agent Debra Winger, undercover as a combine operator, is investigating suspects. She quickly eliminates farmer Tom Berenger, a Vietnam hero, widower and devoted father, to whom she is openly attracted. Her boss, John Heard, tells her to look deeper. Costa-Gavras builds these early scenes with spellbinding skill. Berenger complains about the way the country is changing, his cake-baking mother (the estimable Betsy Blair) speaks of “the wrong element,” and his young kids drop a few references to ZOG, initials white supremacy vigilantes have sprayed near the bodies of their victims. The director creates an atmosphere of barely concealed rage festering in the sunshine. When that rage erupts, Berenger and his good-ole-boy buddies drag Winger on “coon hunts” and demand her complicity against “Jew lawyers and their nigger police” (ZOG stands for Zionist Occupational Government). She is sickened and outraged. But duty demands that she nail the man she loves. Betrayed is an engrossing, well-acted and well-intentioned movie. Hearing children spout garbage about murderous blacks and sodomizing rabbis graphically highlights the lethal legacy of racism. But the screenplay by Joe (Jagged Edge, Flashdance) Eszterhas often reeks of melodrama remindful of 1951’s hokey Storm Warning, in which Ronald Reagan helped Doris Day defeat the Ku Klux Klan. The love story, though fiercely played by Winger and Berenger, is also fiercely irrelevant and distracting. Betrayed betrays its power and point by trying to sell a political drama as sexy, goose-bump entertainment. For Costa-Gavras, that kind of compromise represents a crucial failure of conscience. (R)

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