Costa-Gavra’s 1982 Palme d’or winning political thriller Missing had a recent reshowing at HOME Manchester. Those who attended were fortunate to watch an original 35mm print of the film. The colour was a touch worn but that did little to affect a criticism of the United States government so damning it was banned from being released until 2006.
The director makes the brave decision to drop us, the viewer, into the heart of what appears to be a war zone without any explanation. Scraps of information informs us that a military coup has taken place in this unknown South American country, and that our lead couple, Beth and Charles (played by John Shea and Sissy Spacek) are caught in the middle of it, having travelled there to live and write. The pair’s situation is a precarious one. As gunshots ring all around and bodies litter the streets, their American nationality is the only thing that keeps them safe. That is, until the husband gets arrested.
At this point his father Ed (played by Jack Lemmon) enters the fray after becoming frustrated with his apparent lack of action by the government in New York. Lemmon’s character embodies the viewer’s confusion and lack of understanding, both in the microcosm of Charles’ disappearance and the macrocosm of the wider turmoil enveloping the country. He is driven by the belief of his son’s safety and of justice coming to those culpable. It is therefore with great contempt that he should be forced to spend time with his daughter-in-law Beth.
Ed arrives with this rigid political conviction of America and of the American dream. That his son and those who he associates himself with (including Beth) are left-wing radicals, who live off the fat of the land with their anti-establishment beliefs that are an illness to his great country. Slowly, as the details surrounding his son’s disappearance become clearer and the US involvement in the coup confirmed, he faces the prospect of America, his America, being a country of murder in the name of self-preservation.
Jack Lemmon perfectly captures the internal strife of Ed as his world comes tumbling down; his son presumed dead and aware now that all he held true is false. He, a religious scientist, who holds truth to be at the heart of faith. Missing truly excels in the scenes where Ed and Beth investigate the disappearance and try to work out what really happened.
You can visibly see Ed transitioning through the five stages of grief for both his country and his son, the two things he loved most. They begin as polar opposites but by the end of the film see eye to eye. All the views of hers he despised on America became his too, such as a condemnatory questioning of the system and disbelief of the men in suits who stand there so brazen and lie through gritted teeth. Ignorance is bliss and his world has been covered in a shroud of darkness.
The most poignant moment comes when Ed confronts the US Ambassador and Army Captain with news of his son’s execution. The Ambassador admits their involvement in the coup saying how he is ‘concerned with the preservation of a way of life. And a damn good one too’. Those words used to justify the death of his son along with thousands more are the same words he uttered to Beth just days before, angered by her lack of patriotism.
Costa-Gavra certainly holds a very strong view on the events that took place in Chile, 1973. So I found it disingenuous that he never states the name of the country all the while mentioning cities such as Santiago. To go to such great lengths to creates this urgent and necessary expose but hold back one of the most pivotal details seems baffling, and it detracts from the overall splash the film makes. The decision to also set the film before the disappearance rather than opening with Ed’s arrival seems strange, as the intent is blatantly to spark outrage and the first act does little to build momentum or anger.
In the climax, we are told that Charles’ body was returned after many months, rather than the matter of days the US Ambassador promised. Years later, with advancements in DNA technology, it was determined that the body shipped back to the United States was not that of Charles Horman. The US State Department denies any involvement in the murder.