MISSING (1982) 4 stars Cast: Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Melanie Mayron and John Shea. Director: Costa-Gavras Distributor: Criterion Collection Rated PG
How many Americans would have paid attention to a film about Chileans murdered in the bloody 1973 coup in which Gen. Augusto Pinochet and the Chilean armed forces overthrew the democratically elected government of socialist Salvador Allende? Although we’ll never know for sure, given the general lack of knowledge in this country about Latin American politics we can probably assume that not too many filmgoers would have cared.
What we do know is that by making “Missing,” the acclaimed 1982 film about the disappearance and murder in the days immediately following the coup of a young American living in Chile and the efforts of his wife and father to discover what happened to him, the internationally renowned Greek director Costa-Gavras (“Z,” “State of Siege”) changed all that.
Out this week in an excellent new DVD from the Criterion Collection (two discs, $39.95, rated PG), “Missing” remains both a powerful political thriller and a searing indictment of U.S. foreign policy. Recipient of an Oscar for best adapted screenplay and additional nominations for best picture, actor (Jack Lemmon) and actress (Sissy Spacek), “Missing” also won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Led by the compelling performances of Lemmon and Spacek as the father and wife of Charles Horman, the murdered American writer and filmmaker (played by John Shea), Costa-Gavras’ film prodded the collective conscience of human rights supporters internationally and inspired new investigations into the Nixon Administration’s covert support for the coup.
And, as researcher Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive’s Chile Documentation Project at George Washington University explains on the DVD, documents that were declassified after the movie came out prove not only the involvement of the American military and the CIA in planning and supporting the coup but also their complicity in Charles Horman’s murder and the knowledge of the U.S. embassy in Santiago about it. Kornbluh also looks at the film’s successful defense against a libel suit filed by three of the U.S. embassy officials depicted in “Missing.”
Rather than focusing on Chileans swept up in Pinochet’s violent repression, Costa-Gavras chose, as he says in a DVD interview from 2006, to place what he calls the “putsch” in the background and concentrate on the relationships among “the father, the son and the daughter-in-law.”
Lemmon, who won the best actor award at Cannes for his portrayal of Ed Horman, brilliantly conveys the anguish and helplessness of a conservative New York businessman and Christian Scientist. Ed Horman arrives in Chile as a strong supporter of U.S. foreign policy and a father who has clashed with his son and daughter-in-law about their values and politics, but leaves in bitter disillusionment about both America’s apparent support for the coup and the veracity of the U.S. embassy officials he meets.
Spacek, who was Costa-Gavras’ first choice for the role of Joyce Horman (renamed Beth for the film), succeeds admirably in creating a character the director calls “this seemingly fragile person (who was really) incredibly strong.” And Shea, who is seen in flashbacks, comes across as believably passionate, inquisitive and naive.
Costa-Gavras doesn’t shrink from conveying the brutality of the coup and its aftermath. But by following Ed Horman and his daughter-in-law in their harrowing and suspenseful search for Charles in hospitals, morgues, foreign embassies and a sports arena where thousands of political prisoners were detained, they become the surrogate eyes for the audience witnessing what took place.
In addition to interviews with Costa-Gavras, producers Edward and Mildred Lewis, author Thomas Hauser (whose book on the Horman case started it all) and other cast and crew members, the new DVD of “Missing” includes informative written essays by film critic Michael Wood, an open letter by the Hormans’ friend Terry Simon (played in the movie by Melanie Mayron), a 1982 interview with the director and the U.S. State Department’s official response to the film.
Finally, the DVD includes footage from a 20th anniversary celebration of “Missing” in 2002 featuring the lead actors (with Chris Lemmon representing his late father), a former Chilean ambassador to the United Nations and actor Gabriel Byrne, among others. Byrne, who starred in Costa-Gavras’ “Hanna K.,” honors the “Missing” director “who balanced truth and artistic excellence to create what is possibly one of the most influential human rights films ever made.”