Film Review: Missing (1982)

(source: tmdb.org)

If the phrase "political film" is to be associated with a single name, any serious cinephile should mention Costa-Gavras first. In 1970s French director built reputation on the series of highly regarded, powerful docudramas depicting governments murdering, torturing or unjustly persecuting people. One such film was also his Hollywood debut, 1982 film Missing.

The plot is based on the book by Thomas Hauser, which had described real events that occurred in Chile shortly after 1973 coup. Marxist government of President Allende was deposed by the military led by General Augusto Pinochet, which immediately started the reign of terror with intention of crushing any opposition to new regime. Among the people caught in those events are couple of Americans, including freelance journalist Charles Horman (played by John Shea) and his wife Beth (played by Sissy Spacek). Although they witness curfews, omnipresent military patrol and people being shot on the street, they still believe that their American citizenship give them relative safety. One morning Beth comes to find their home ransacked and her husband missing. Her efforts to find his whereabouts prove fruitless and US Embassy officials are of little or no help. After a while, her father-in law Ed Horman (played by Jack Lemmon) comes to Chile to assist her search. As a conservative businessman who was dismissive of his son's leftist sympathies and counterculture lifestyle, he is at first sceptical towards Beth's claims that the military arrested her husband with tacit approval of US government. This scepticism gradually wanes after he talks to numerous witnesses, sees Charles' notes, visits hospitals, morgues and even the notorious National Stadium where the military held, tortured and murdered prisoners. As Hormans reconstruct Charles' activities before disappearance, the most important detail becomes his presence in Viña del Mar during the coup, where he saw unusually high number of US military and government officials. It becomes very likely that Charles was arrested and executed in order to hide US government's role in the coup and ensuing bloodbath.

Missing was made nine years after the events, with Pinochet's regime still being in power in Chile (and, consequently, film being banned in that country until 990). Its politically charged content and the explicit claim that US government had helped the coup and bore responsibility for the murder of their own citizens caused a lot of controversy during and before the premiere. Reagan's administration, which had openly supported various right-wing dictatorships in Latin America in order to fight Soviet-backed Communists, wasn't happy with a film and Secretary of State Alexander Haig issued unprecedented statement condemning the film as false and misleading. The statement actually helped the film, at least among left-leaning audiences, leading to Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival and, later, Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Politics might be driving the factor behind this film, but it isn't main ingredient of its success. Costa-Gavras might have leftist leanings, but he doesn't wear them on his sleeve. Unlike Oliver Stone and many other politically charged film makers, he respects the intelligence and different viewpoints of his audience and allows viewers to make their own conclusions. Costa-Gavras shows great skill as a director, making the story, despite its ultimate bleakness, look exciting and engaging. In the first part of film, the audience is introduced to dark realities of post-coup Chile through the perspective of protagonists who only want to survive and leave the country. Missing functions as a good thriller and later seamlessly switches the style into detective story, when Ed Horman and his daughter-in-law try to piece the most credible story from various, often contradictory and unreliable testimonies. Costa-Gavras has shot the film in Mexico, putting financial resources of Universal to good use and reconstructing some of the most macabre episodes of those events – thousands of prisoners at National Stadium, soldiers and tanks on the streets, dozens of bodies in makeshift morgues and hundreds of refugees taking shelter in few foreign embassies.

The biggest asset of this film is an excellent cast. Jack Lemmon, an actor who had made career in comedies, tried his hand in serious drama and the result is one extremely moving role that could be seen as one of the best parts of his filmography. He portrays a man whose world is slowly crumbling, first by slow and devastating realisation that he lost his son and later, when he sees that the government in which he believed is part of problem and not the solution; this slow but effective transformation is completed when he transforms his anger and loss into pursuit of truth and justice. Sissy Spacek is also effective as his daughter-in-law, who begins as slightly naive only to become justifiably paranoid and hostile to Ed, who distrusts and blames her for his son's fate. Moment when two of them finally realise that they are on the same side and find comfort for their loss in each other's friendship represents one of rare bright spots in this otherwise dark film. Missing also benefits from supporting cast, including some of the very fine characters actors like Charles Cioffi as sinister US Embassy security official and Jerry Hardin as US military officer. John Shea as the titular character, on the other hand, isn't that remarkable. This, as well as slightly mishandled use of certain flashbacks and occasional slip into sentimentality (like in the scene featuring Hormans' pre-coup home film) is the reason why Missing isn't perfect. But, even with those flaws, this is still a rare example of thinking man's thriller that is, sadly, still relevant in today's world of coups, regime changes and rampant political persecution.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)

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