Missing (1982)

Synopsis:

Real-life drama about the search for American filmmaker and journalist Charles Horman (John Shea, Stealing Home), who disappeared without a trace during the 1973 coup in Chile.

Reaction & Thoughts:

 Chile has had a very turbulent and bloody history. The unstable political situation in Chile hit its rock bottom during the 1970s, triggered by the election of Salvador Allende as President of the Republic. Allende came to power with the main purpose of nationalizing the most important industries in the country, boldly stating his intentions of establishing a government based on a Marxist-Leninist program. As Allende moved the country towards Socialism, the United States of America watched with understandable concern. Allende’s opposition was strong enough to create political and economical chaos, and the eventual intrusion of USA in the conflict — assisting the dissidents in their effort to take over the government — just added unwanted fuel to the already volatile situation.

In 1973, a “coup” occurred, and the military seized the power, driving the country into a political limbo. Unfortunately, the “coup” just served to initiate a reign of terror by the military forces, and the USA was forced to silently watch the atrocities the new government committed against its citizens — a police state that USA naively helped establish and could no longer control (doesn’t that sound familiar?).

Deftly directed by Costa-Gravas, Missing uncannily captures the complicated maneuvers of the political system of the post “coup” Chile, while still concentrating on the very personal story of a father and a wife desperately looking for an American reporter who disappeared during the early stages of the military “coup.”

Based on the true story of Charles Horman (a Harvard educated journalist caught in the middle of the conflict), Missing is a harrowing political drama, a heartbreaking human story of perseverance, a historical portrait of inhumanity at its worst, and a severe indictment of USA’s domination in South America. Director Costa-Gravas really knows how to present all these important threads in a clear and engrossing manner. A victim of political chaos himself, Costa-Gravas was forced to leave his native Greece by a right-wing government that was unhappy with the comments he made against the government. As he did with his most famous movie, the excellent 1969 political thriller Z, Costa-Gravas infuses Missing with enough emphatic sentiment, helping the film achieve some universal feelings rarely found in political thrillers of this nature.

At the heart of Missing are the wonderful performances of Jack Lemmon (The Apartment) as Horman’s father and Sissy Spacek (Carrie) as Horman’s wife. Lemmon gives what is probably his best latter-day performance as the conservative, affluent businessman who innocently believes that his American constitutional rights would be upheld on foreign soil. His slow realization of the deliberate obstacles that the Chilean (and American) government puts on his search for the truth is vividly portrayed by this wonderful actor.

On the other hand, Spacek’s knowingly performance as a very unlikely tower of strength, who starts gaining the respect of her father-in-law, anchors the film, preventing the story from becoming too sentimental. Her understated performance complements Lemmon’s more emotional turn, creating a perfect balance between soul and heart — their forcibly expressed performances are the core of involving.

Missing was a controversial, but popular film during its initial theatrical run, and the film’s achievements did not go unnoticed. The Academy bestowed four Oscar nominations on the film, including one for Best Picture and acting nods to Lemmon and Spacek. 1982 was a great year for American films, and facing the competition from now classics The VerdictGandhi, E. T. – The Extraterrestrial, and Tootsie, Missing did not stand a chance to win any major awards. In any other year the film’s relevant social subject would have carried the film to a secured victory, but this time it had to console itself with an Oscar for Best Screenplay (written by Costa-Gravas and Donald Stewart).

As the film moved to prominence, many real characters that were portrayed in the film began to feel uncomfortable with what the film implied about their role in the disappearance of Horman. Fortunately, Costa-Gravas did not make the mistake Oliver Stone makes of reinventing history and presenting it as common fact. Costa-Gravas certainly stays as close to the facts as possible, and few could object to the truthfulness of the events depicted in the film. Here is a film that is a valid history lesson as well as a suspenseful political thriller.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

I first watched Missing almost four decades ago, when it debuted on VHS for the first time. I was in my early teens and the film caused a great impact on the impressionable and naive kid that I was. For the very first time in my life, I was exposed to the harsh realities of the world, and the sad possibility that the good guys do not always triumph in the end. Re-watching it again after many years was an eye-opener — I suddenly realized how much humanity Costa-Gravas invested into the film. It is true that Missing does not present a positive view of our government, but it is far from being anti-American, instead, the film celebrates, above all, the courage and dignity that Americans display during a time of crisis. Color, 122 minutes, Rated PG.

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