Director Constantin Costa-Gavras and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas collaborated for the first of two occasions with this inept thriller, reportedly inspired (like the same year's superior Talk Radio) by the 1984 assassination of leftwing radio personality Alan Berg. Debra Winger stars as Cathy Weaver, an FBI agent who slips undercover into the American heartland. She poses as Katie, an itinerant farmer, and attempts to infiltrate a group of white supremacists whose leader, widower Gary Simmons (Tom Berenger), is suspected of murdering a liberal talk show host. Weaver and Simmons fall in love and have an affair, which tears Cathy apart after she comes face-to-face with the depths of Gary's racism, hatemongering, and paranoia. Meanwhile, circumstances threaten to reveal Cathy's identity and put her in grave danger.
No one will ever accuse Costa-Gavras of being politically insincere (or a maladroit filmmaker), but he made a horrible decision by partnering up with Eszterhas - who has turned out some fine scripts over the years but specializes in knee-jerk emotional manipulation and provocation of the viewer. In certain contexts (such as Jagged Edge) this works, but in Betrayed, those qualities undermine Gavras's social consciousness - you can constantly feel Eszterhas exploiting a serious subject to set up and deliver empty shocks, as in an ill-conceived sequence that has Gary and his deranged pals hunting and killing a wounded black man in the woods, and another where the men line up to pump ammunition at targets shaped like anti-Semitic caricatures out of Jud Suss. For all one knows, this may be an accurate representation of the white supremacist subculture, but as shown here, it rings entirely false and comes across like a two-dimensional picture of racism. Nor does it help the movie's case when Costa-Gavras and Eszterhas travel far out of their way to damn Middle American Christianity as well, by looping it in with everything else - as in a trip to a "camp" where bigots stand around with Klan masks on their heads, burn crosses, and sing "Amazing Grace" and "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." This not only leaves a bilious aftertaste, but feels patently offensive and ridiculous.
Not all is a loss, here: Winger delivers an extraordinary, nuanced performance that pulls us into her character's confused emotional state, and Berenger convincingly evokes the depths of Gary's pathology. Yet the movie also suffers from the absence of chemistry between them: we never believe that Gary falls in love with Cathy - a very serious problem when the drama hinges on that transition. The film does have an interesting concept at its core - the emotional torture to which FBI agents must regularly subject themselves, in order to keep the rest of us out of harm's way. That idea merits exploration, and could have made the film a singularly fascinating and powerful experience, but we can't be expected to swallow the said theme when so many of the individual story elements fail to add up.