Jan. 27, 2009

Missing (1982)
Grade: 46/100

Director: Costa-Gavras
Stars: Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea

What it's about. It is 1973 in an unmentioned South American country, which nonetheless has to be Chile. A coup d'etat has swept a military junta into power. Soldiers patrol the streets, imprisoning or shooting those whose faces, clothing, or actions they dislike. Homes are searched, a strict curfew is enforced, and thousands are executed.

Caught up in the chaos are several young Americans. These include Charlie Horman (John Shea), his wife Beth (Sissy Spacek), and their mutual friends Terry (Melanie Mayron) and Frank (Joe Regalbuto). Charles is missing, probably held or killed by the junta. His father, Jack Lemmon, shows up in Chile, and pesters U.S. embassy officials about the whereabouts of his son. He is accompanied by Spacek, although she appears to believe that Charlie is dead.

How others will see it. Missing was nominated for four major Academy Awards, winning one for its screenplay. It also won the Golden Palm at Cannes. Critical praise was predictable given the casting and the film's subject and message. More on this later.

The user ratings at imdb.com are consistently high, indicating that those who have seen Missing are generally impressed with it. The total number of votes, though, is relatively low, which is little surprise given its depressing nature. It would be interesting to know how Democrats and Republicans see the film. I suspect that both sides will be outraged by it, but for different reasons. Democrats will seethe at American foreign policy, and Republicans will seethe at the film's 'propaganda.'

How I felt about it. Missing is not shy about its message. The Nixon administration staged a coup in Chile to replace a socialist (or merely potentially socialist) government with a vicious right-wing military dictatorship. Nixon (whose portrait sinisterly adorns U.S. government offices in the Chilean embassy) accomplished this by dispatching key intelligence and military personnel to work with the Chilean military to plan the coup, and enforce their grip on power. The U.S. did not care whether thousands of people were shot by the newly installed dictatorship. They did not even care if any American citizens were killed, as long as those killed were trouble-making leftists.

No wonder the movie won the Golden Palm. And Hollywood, also known for its liberal views, was also likely to sympathize with what director Costa-Gavras was expressing. The casting was equally shrewd. Jack Lemmon again plays the American businessman everyman whose character's relationship with the powers-that-be changes drastically during the course of the film. That is, he gradually moves from supportive to condemning. In The Apartment, he went from Fred MacMurray's brown noser to stealing his mistress. Similarly, in The China Syndrome, Lemmon is transformed from an advocate of nuclear power to its bitter opponent. Here, Lemmon is at first a conservative figure of the establishment. His anger at his son's loss is directed at his absent son, and at his presumed widow, Spacek. Inevitably, by film's end, Lemmon is enraged at his own government's mendacity, and now admires Spacek. Welcome to the land of liberals, Lemmon. At least until the beginning of your next 'important' film.

Spacek, then fresh from her critical and commercial success with Coal Miner's Daughter, was also a cagey casting choice. Early on, she plays the vulnerable woman in peril. Later, knowing that her husband is likely dead, she turns her attention to his father, making him into the strident activist that his son had been.

By the way, the body eventually returned from Chile was not that of Charlie Horman. DNA testing proved otherwise. Just another lie on the part of American officials and operatives in Chile, whose goal by then was to get the mettlesome Lemmon out of their hair.