Criterion // 1982 // 122 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 21st, 2008
What happened to Charles Horman?
"You Americans, you always assume you must do something before you can be arrested."
Missing is set in 1973, during the violent military coup in Chile. We meet two Americans, Charlie (John Shea, The Insurgents) and Beth (Sissy Spacek, 3 Women) Horman, who have elected to live in this troubled country. They are not doing so for blatantly political purposes; they've simply come to like it there. For all the country's problems, they like the people, they've made good friends, and they enjoy being there. The couple's happiness is destined to be short-lived. In the middle of some rather chaotic events, Charlie suddenly disappears. Beth has no idea what happened to him or where he could be. She turns to the American consulate for help, but receives surprisingly little. She continues to ask them for assistance over and over again, and continues to get the same canned answers.
After a short period of time, Charlie's father, Ed (Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger), shows up. He is convinced that Beth's anti-establishment political views have kept her from being able to communicate properly with the American officials, and believes that a patriotic conservative such as himself will be able to cut through all the red tape and find out what's really going on. Together, Ed and Beth slowly work their way through a tangled web of lies, clues, politics, and conspiracies, slowly but surely uncovering the horrifying truth about Charlie.
Director Costa-Gavras has spent a large portion of his career making humane and angry political films. Cover-ups, lies, corruption, abuse...this is familiar territory for the director. Some of these films have a tendency to be a little too sloppy (there are strong exceptions such as Z), but most of them have at least some measure of emotional resonance. That is most assuredly the case with Missing, which is one of the more moving political dramas I have seen. Yes, there are some structural problems. Yes, there are moments that could have been handled better. But the passionate core of this movie is so strong that I didn't care about most of the mistakes until afterwards.
The first half-hour jerks around a bit, taking us from character to character and place to place until we have an idea of what is going on. At that time, Charlie vanishes, and we are permitted to move into the real meat of the story: Ed and Beth's search for the truth. When the film is focused on these two individuals, it is magnificent cinema. Their search for answers is as compelling as the material in films like All the President's Men and JFK, but even more engaging is the relationship that slowly develops between the two of them.
Things are hostile between Ed and Beth at first. She is a doubtful liberal who instinctively doesn't trust the government to do the right thing in any situation. Ed initially views her as something of a bubble-headed nuisance, and moans about how the young people of today like to do nothing better than complain about the blessings they've been given as American citizens. Ed is a man who does indeed instinctively trust the government. At one point, he asks an official how the investigation is going. The official replies, "We're doing everything we can." Beth hears another tired version of, "We're not doing anything, and we're never going to do anything." Ed takes the official at his word, and beams, "That's just what I wanted to hear!"
Missing may technically be about the disappearance of an innocent young man named Charlie, but ultimately, Charlie isn't the one that we feel the most for. We feel for Ed and Beth, and the toll this situation is taking on their lives. This is largely due to the performances of Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, who are nothing short of masterful here. Beth has bold opinions, but a quiet and somewhat fragile personality. She is brave and can seemingly face almost anything, and yet she is also very fearful. Spacek has a unique screen presence, and it's difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role as well.
The same can be said of Jack Lemmon. In fact, I'll add something to that: this is truly one of the great Lemmon performances. This is a role that deserves to be listed next to such achievements as The Apartment, Save the Tiger, and Glengarry Glen Ross. The actor has many excellent scenes here, but let me point out three that you should really pay close attention to. First, look at his terse dialogue scene with Spacek when they go back to the hotel after meeting up for the first time. Consider his pauses, and the way he delivers his words with carefully-selected doses of hidden venom. Then look at the scene later in the film in which he desperately informs government officials that he is willing to do anything and everything necessary to get his son back. Finally, observe the moment when he is subjected to some insulting implications from one of those government officials. Lemmon doesn't say a word during the scene, but his eyes speak volumes.
The transfer is reasonably good, though it has that same worn-out look as many films from the 1970s and early 1980s. The image may not be terribly vibrant, but it's fairly clean, with only a minimal amount of scratches and flecks. The mono sound is serviceable, nothing more, nothing less. Dialogue is sharp and clear, though there are moments when the Vangelis score suffers just a little bit in terms of audio quality. Speaking of that score, it's decent enough in its own right, but I do think it dates the film in a slightly negative way. It would be more forgivable if it was a musical reflection of the era, but the film is taking place during the early 1970s, while the music is most assuredly a product of the 1980s.
Criterion's two-disc set offers up the usual generous supplements. There is no commentary track included, so the vast majority of the extras are found on the second disc. First up, we get a half-hour of interviews with Costa-Gavras. The first three minutes are from a vintage television piece, but most of this was recorded in 2006 for a different DVD release. Next, we have an interview of Joyce Horman, the woman played by Sissy Spacek in the film. She has nothing but praise to offer Missing, and seems to have a great deal of appreciation for the way this story was presented to the public. We also hear a good deal of her own personal story, as she offers a firsthand account of how things happened. Next is a 17-minute interview with four individuals involved with the film. The first is Thomas Hauser, who wrote the book The Execution of Charles Harmon, upon which the film is based. The other three are producers: Edward and Mildred Lewis & Sean Daniel. They talk a good bit about the challenges of getting such a political film made. Twenty minutes of footage from the 1982 Cannes Film Festival is presented here, featuring interviews with Jack Lemmon and the real-life Ed Horman, among others. This is followed by a 20-minute interview with author Peter Kornbluh, who offers a more explicit attack on the U.S. Government than the film was permitted to. We also get 20 minutes of footage from a celebration of Missing held by the Charles Horman Truth Project. We get a short speech from Gabriel Byrne, talking about how much the film means to him, and also statements from Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Melanie Mayron, and others. Finally, the Criterion booklet is a bit thicker than usual here. We get 38 pages containing an essay, an interview with Costa-Gavras, an open letter from a friend of the Horman family, and a statement from the U.S. State Department about the film. Over two hours of material, and the vast majority of it is insightful and engaging.
The film is set against the backdrop of the military coup in Chile and seems to be trying to make some statements about what went on during that time. I'm not sure that it does so successfully. Oh, certainly in this one specific situation that the film centers on, but not the coup as a whole. I don't know whether this is because the film was forced to change things for legal reasons, but much of the material dealing with blatantly political elements is rather poorly presented. At times it is difficult to make heads or tails of what is taking place and why. I assume that audiences of 1982 were a bit more familiar with the events of the coup than audiences of today would be, but a bit more explanation and context would not have hurt anything. As it is, the film requires the average viewer to check out a history book from the library in order to fully comprehend the events taking place. Even if you are familiar with everything, the movie is still guilty of seeming a bit wishy-washy on what it is trying to pronounce.
Missing, though somewhat flawed, is a must-see film. Long after the problems and missteps have faded from your mind, the important elements will linger and resonate. I know that I will never forget the Lemmon performance; the portrait of a man slipping from national pride to broken cynicism. What a painful fall that must have been.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Costa-Gavras Interview
* Joyce Horman Interview
* Interview w/Producers and Writer