Criterion’s new two-disc edition of Costa-Gavras’ first-rate political thriller Missing is an improvement on the mass-market edition that has been in circulation for a much lower price. With Criterion’s product, yes, you will pay about two to three times more for a film, but the quality you get in return is, most of the time, well worth it. With Missing, unfortunately, the results are more of a mixed bag.
The extras aren’t really as spectacular as they should have been. Couldn’t Spacek, the only surviving principle of the production (Costa-Gavras and co-star Jack Lemmon are both deceased), have been a bit more present in the extras disc of the film, considering this was one of her greatest accomplishments? A scene-specific commentary, an interview … anything?
Two more comprehensive interviews with Costa-Gavras fill in the blanks about the writing, casting, and filming, but overall the package isn’t as delicious or complete as most Criterion offerings, right down to the mediocre artwork. There is a lot of background information, a lot of historical data about what was going on in Chile with Dictator Augusto Pinochet at the time, but it is not essential to understanding the film, though helpful in an ancillary way.
However, the film itself is well-made and taut, and Criterion’s high-definition digital transfer is meticulously clean. The director (who is also responsible for similarly political-tinged themed films like Z and Music Box) chose to set the true story of American filmmaker and journalist Charles Horman, who disappears without a trace, in an unnamed Latin American country during a coup.
It is well known that in real life, it happened in Chile and the year was 1973. Missing provoked an official response from the U.S. State Department and caused a mild bit of controversy upon release. Costa-Gavras said, in an interview included with the film that he wanted to force the audience to participate and play detective. The film’s studio, Universal, wanted the opening scene to read “Chile, September 1973”, but the director astutely points out “these things are still happening. People are disappearing all over the world.” Twenty-six years later Missing remains a strong, moving experience and serves as a timely reminder that political torture and kidnapping are still happening all over the world in unstable countries.
And as we are introduced to the central character of Horman’s wife Beth (Sissy Spacek), the film makes sure to keep us on our toes by throwing the audience into a world of tumult, violence and uncertainty. Gun shots pop off in the background in the middle of the day. There is a strict curfew that, if broken, can be punished by shooting death and the sequence in which Beth misses curfew and has to cower on the streets at night watching people get picked off one by one by the police is truly explosive. Recounting the everyday horrors of living in a war zone is not really a new theme for films, but the way Costa-Gavras sets the action against Americans is very provocative. We don’t usually see ourselves as the victims in these situations, usually we’re the aggressors. The director flips the perspective effectively.
Things begin fast and don’t really let up as the search for Charles unleashes at a break-neck pace. His father Ed, a strict Christian Scientist (played brilliantly by Lemmon) flies in from the states to try and be of assistance to his “anti-establishment paranoia” stricken daughter-in-law, and the two of them begin to fight fiercely for the man they both love. Ed’s views, politically, religiously and morally, are completely the opposite of Charles and Beth’s, but by the end, as an intellectual, he must learn to at least respect their choices, although he vehemently is opposed to what they stand for.
Ed is a man who is used to getting his way in the United States, he is a little macho, a little controlling. He doesn’t like it one bit that Beth is the one who controls their fortune here; he doesn’t like the idea of a woman having as much knowledge as she possesses. Often, you can read the embarrassment on his face when he feels as though she is getting too loud. Yet, for his son, he learns to trust her. They create a harmonious duet.
It’s fascinating to watch the pair of America’s best play off of one another and challenge themselves with something untried. This kind of exploratory bravery is exciting to witness onscreen. The casting of the diametrically-opposite Lemmon and Spacek in the leads is an inspiring bit of casting and though the two performers couldn’t be from more different worlds, their glaring stylistic differences compliment both the characters and the actors.
Both performers are entirely outside of their comfort zones: Lemmon in the serious, timely political thriller when he was best known for being one of the nicest men in Hollywood and Spacek, so warm and full of charm in real life, plays a more closed, fiery character that she hadn’t really done up until Missing. Not an actress to ever repeat herself, she also hasn’t done anything like Beth since. Whether that’s bad or good, though, I am still unsure.
Spacek in particular, out of all of the actresses who came to prominence in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, is not given her due. Not for this film. Not really in general. With her haunted blue eyes, strawberry blonde hair, beguiling screen presence and slow Texas drawl, it has been said that she is hard to cast, or that she plays into typecasting.
One cursory glance of her resume will quickly reveal a diversity that is rarely seen in American film actresses, in terms of quality and in terms of variety: Badlands, Carrie, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Crimes of the Heart, The Straight Story, and In the Bedroom are but a few of the feathers in her acting cap, yet, now, nearing 60, like many of her counter-parts, the once highly-sought after and prolifically talented Spacek is appearing less and less in films, and this, my friends, is a crying shame. Someone needs to get her the kind of accessible, high-paying work that it seems as though only Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep are being offered. She deserves a renaissance. The lack of Spacek’s presence in modern film makes Missing a tad bittersweet.
Missing was nominated for four major Oscars – Lemmon and Spacek were up for Actor and Actress while Costa-Gavras was there for Best Adapted Screenplay (Thomas Hauser wrote the book) and Best Picture (Wolfgang Peterson stole Costa-Gavras’ spot for Best Director for Das Boot). The film walked away empty handed.