Former U.S. Ambassador to Chile Nathaniel Davis was not pleased when he saw this film. Although his name is never mentioned in it, nor is Chile, it is clear that Davis saw himself in the film’s less than helpful ambassador. Thinking he had a case, especially since his name is mentioned in Thomas Hauser’s book upon which the film was based, Davis sued the filmmakers for defamation. Ultimately, the case was thrown out of court… but Missing remains political dynamite, a chilling condemnation of America’s meddling in other democratic countries’ internal affairs.
The year is 1973. Shortly after a coup in a South American country, New York businessman Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) goes there to find out what happened to his son Charlie (John Shea), a journalist who disappeared. He meets Charlie’s wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) who’s grown tired of trying to make the U.S. embassy work harder to locate her husband. Ed is angry, unhappy with being in a country where you’re greeted by the military at the airport, and frustrated with his idealistic son who shouldn’t have been in this godforsaken country in the first place.
In the beginning, Ed is also annoyed at Beth’s attitude as he tries to gain information from the embassy and authorities. But after a while, he begins to understand that he really isn’t in New York anymore…
Effective thriller, emotional drama
Costa-Gavras had directed several political thrillers before, including State of Siege (1973) that portrayed a U.S. embassy official being kidnapped and killed amid political upheaval in Uruguay. When making Missing, which came to be one of his greatest films, Costa-Gavras may have chosen not to call the country where Ed Horman tries to find his son Chile, but that’s what it is.
The horrors we see are based on Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup that resulted in thousands of murders and widespread tyranny; one of the victims was Charlie Horman, even though we still don’t know exactly what happened or who killed him. The film follows Ed and Beth in their tragic quest, which almost turns into a joke. Wherever they go they face more lies, either from the junta or from the U.S. embassy whose officials’ hands are bloodied even though they would never admit it. It’s effective as a thriller because we don’t know what happened to Charlie, but Missing is above all a very emotional drama where the filmmakers’ sadness over Charlie’s fate is obvious, and touching.
This sentiment is helped not least by Vangelis’s music score, which also increases our discomfort in a few key scenes where the Chilean military’s brutality is obvious. Spacek is excellent as Beth, as idealistic as her husband; Lemmon a tower of strength as Ed, a symbol of an older generation that refuses to understand that the world outside of America is different and that younger generations’ desire to challenge his way of life is a healthy sign of a democracy.
The filmmakers’ work is respectful and clear-eyed. But there is a lot of anger simmering here that also fuels the drama. The fact that America helped overthrow the Chilean government and helped install a dictatorship in 1973 must be upsetting to anyone who believes that the U.S. should oppose tyranny and support democracy. This film takes that nauseating feeling home by showing the Americans who also died as a result of the coup. We shouldn’t see it as ignoring all those Chilean victims, but rather as a bold attempt to remind America of the part its political leaders played in this sad affair.
Missing 1982-U.S. 122 min. Color. Produced by Edward Lewis, Mildred Lewis. Directed by Costa-Gavras. Screenplay: Costa-Gavras, Donald Stewart. Book: Thomas Hauser (“The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice”). Editing: Françoise Bonnot. Music: Vangelis. Cast: Jack Lemmon (Ed Horman), Sissy Spacek (Beth Horman), Melanie Mayron (Terry Simon), John Shea, Charles Cioffi, David Clennon.
Trivia: Costa-Gavras’s first English-speaking film.
Oscar: Best Adapted Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Screenplay, Film Editing. Cannes: Palme d’Or, Best Actor (Lemmon).
Last word: “I finally decided to make ‘Missing’ for several reasons. One is because I knew the Chilean system. The story did not take place in the U.S. but outside. It was a story of a father looking for his son, which I knew also. So I made it. I also asked the American producers to do it with my French crew and to do post-production in France. All the American films I have done under those conditions, and it was a good thing because I also had full freedom. If they hadn’t given me full freedom, I would have stayed away.” (Costa-Gavras, The Progressive)