Director: Costa-Gavras. Cast: Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Charles Cioffi, David Clennon, Melanie Mayron, Janice Rule, Richard Bradford, Richard Venture, Jerry Hardin, Keith Szarabajka, Joe Regalbuto, John Doolittle, Martin LaSalle. Screenplay: Costa-Gavras and Donald Stewart (based on the book by Thomas Hauser).

In the very first moments of Costa-Gavras' film Missing, a narrator informs us that we are about to watch a true story, though "some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent, and also to protect the film." To protect the film? That last clause, unexpected and alarming, braces us in our seats. Movies arrive so majestically, so larger-than-life, sealed with the benediction of a studio logo (in this case, Universal's), that we wonder how seditious or dangerous a Hollywood film must be to get itself endangered. Meanwhile, the first image in the movie is a still shot of John Shea, the actor playing the role of Charlie Horman. This face, framed in a car window, fades slowly into view from a field of dull amber, as if the shot is emulsifying before our eyes, as though it can fade or vanish at a second's notice. The word "MISSING," in shadow-outline font, seeps into the frame, and though the angle, color, and composition of the shot are strong, there remains a poignant delicacy to the image. We know that we are seeing someone whose likeness isn't quite fixed, who is about to be taken away.

Missing is not the best film of Costa-Gavras' career (that's probably Z, though I've only seen three of his pictures). It isn't even necessarily the best film Costa-Gavras could have made of this material, and yet it's a gutsy, surprising piece of work, a bold political tract that doubles proficiently as an interpersonal drama. At times these alternate strains of the film work against each other, and yet the friction between them still fits the agitated texture of the movie, an internally divided project about a society caught in the throes of horrendous disarray.

The main action transpires in and after September 1973, when a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet violently and lethally deposed Salvador Allende, the twice-elected president of Chile and leader of the worker's party. From the outset, Missing mostly presumes our basic knowledge of the coup and its aftermath, a reign of terror in which armed police roamed the streets, strict curfews were brutally enforced, up to 30,000 civilians were killed, and as many as a quarter of a million others were kidnapped, tortured, and/or "disappeared," the most invidious neologism of 20th-century social strife in Latin America. Before Costa-Gavras has even cut away from the opening image of Charlie Horman, the glass of his half-raised car window reflects the image of an approaching truck swarming with guards and their automatic weapons. No viewer in 1982 could have failed to register the iconography or to know, instantly, where Missing is set. At the same time, except for the mention of key cities like Santiago and Viņa del Mar, Costa-Gavras and co-scripter Donald Stewart do not go out of their way to specify the scene of these crimes. Conceivably, an uninformed audience could watch the whole picture and not know where it is happening. But in a film that consistently draws strength from what seem like its weaknesses, the near-abstraction of locale transforms what follows into a nervy and scare-inducing vision of how a military coup might play out almost anywhere. Tyranny is the enemy of unique identity, and so none of the hotels, roadways, public facilities, or private quarters where Missing unfolds register as anything but anonymous sites for the cruel enforcement of oppressive power. This is what it would (or did, and does) feel and look like to live in an obliterated culture.

Mimicking this breakdown of social convention, Missing purposefully disorients us even as we acclimatize into its story. Terry (Melanie Mayron), the woman sharing Charlie's taxi and soon after his hotel room is not, as we might well assume, his wife. Subject to Pinochet's vicious curfew, they are renting the room because they can't get back to the home where Charlie's wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) is waiting, nervously. When they arrive the next day, Beth is relieved but undisguisably eager to get out of the country. There are precious few errands and appointments that need to be run and kept before they can depart, including shepherding Terry, their houseguest, safely to a plane. The curfew intervenes again, stranding both of the Hormans away from their house for yet another nerve-wracking evening. This time, we're with Beth as the sirens sound, watching as she crawls behind a dumpster, curled in a fetal position, the snap of gunfire echoing in the distance. Her fear is palpable, but what's even more surprising are her reflexes: she's done this before, and the coup is only days old. Spacek, typecast throughout the 1970s in wispy, ethereal roles, finds in Missing a bold new context for her uniquely nervous energy: this time, it's the aura of a woman whose life is dangerously moment-to-moment. At the same time, after Coal Miner's Daughter and the terrific Raggedy Man, Spacek had acquired (or else, finally had a chance to show) a new, adult steeliness, and that quality also serves this story and this character expertly.

And boy will Beth need that steely resolve: she reaches her house only to discover it ransacked and looted, with no evidence of Charlie. He's gone. No one knows anything, though neighbors recall seeing strange, gruff men in the household at an odd hour, and they may or may not have seen Charlie himself being carried away. But by whom? The Chileans aren't talking, and neither the American Embassy nor the Consulate can find any answers. In hopes of aiding the search, Charlie's father, Ed (Jack Lemmon), flies down to Chile, resentment etched in his face right alongside the hope of a worried father. This joining of forces is not altogether auspicious, because Ed, a devoted conservative, doesn't like Beth, and it isn't clear how much he really likes Charlie. Silently but all too visibly, he thinks that his son and daughter-in-law invited this trouble by living in this country, with no security, no guarantees, no good enough reason for leaving the USA.

So really Missing is two films: the quest for a reconciliation between father and son (or perhaps, out of vicarious necessity, between father and Beth), and the attempt to hack through bureaucratic intransigence and a still-active military takeover in hopes of finding a missing man. The dramatic potentials are expansive, and the film capitalizes on them well. Casting is a big help; Lemmon is especially marvelous, as he usually is when he isn't trying to charm. The movie also finds an ideal pace and rhythm. The scenes are spread all over town and country, past and present intrude on each other in fits and starts, and the copious supporting characters are met fleetingly and in seemingly random order. All of this fits the logic of social breakdown, where the single connecting thread is the hope of finding Charlie, who is more likely to turn up via a lucky guess or an improbable encounter than through an official channel or pre-meditated plan.

At the same time, there are embedded liabilities in Missing's approach to its subject. For one, it's never quite a film about the Chileans. It is not their suffering but the Hormans' that serves to humanize and facialize the political atrocities. At a key moment in the Santiago soccer stadium, the screenplay fesses up to this blind spot; as Beth and then Ed plead for Charlie to show himself, a nameless Chilean detainee calls back, "My father cannot come here!" It is odd, Hollywood's propensity for opening up our awareness of international crises by populating the stories with folks who don't belong there. And a bugaboo that has followed Costa-Gavras through his career is that his polemical outrage is too heavily weighted to suit whatever audience he most wants to court. Though influenced by directors like Pontecorvo, he lacks their willingness to characterize both sides of a conflict, or to move away from the center of conspiracy and negotiation in order to attend to the masses' experience. His dramaturgical recipes tend to make good and bad fairly easy to distinguish, at least by the end, and they sometimes vulgarize in order to score desired emotional effects. When we flash back to a posh lawn party among men who are stoking the coup, the background music is Brenda Lee's "My Whole World Is Falling Down," an obvious and tone-puncturing gag aimed right at middle-class ears. On a broader level, casting his first English-language picture with English-language stars playing English-language victims (or proximate victims) in a Latin American cataclysm is a fair example of stacking the decks.

Still, Missing easily distinguishes itself from most of those irritating Western dramas in which an imperiled country's plight is explained via a white liberal crusader/tourist. For one, it is not afraid of the flaws and confusions of its heroes. Charlie Horman emerges as someone with a fair set of convictions he didn't always follow, a sometime-writer of verses for children who espoused leftist politics while translating articles for that radical bastion the Wall Street Journal. In its generous way, the film is onto how nascent Charlie's political wisdom really was, and yet the immaturity and even hypocrisy of youth isn't something the film begrudges. Part of the story's nostalgia for socialized democracy is the room that such a system affords people to fumble through their own self-education, and the movie is rightly less critical of the Hormans for being a little utopian than it is of global power-players who snuff such beautiful dreams.

Beth shares Charlie's justified skepticism of political channels and soothsaying officials, as well as his knack for mouthing off at the wrong people. Leaving aside the flashback glimpses we get of Charlie, the movie does an able job of characterizing him through his wife; we understand their connection even though we barely witness it. Ed takes longer to understand it, incensed as he is by the "young people of our country who live off their parents and the fat of the land and then find nothing better to do than whine." Rants like these make Ed a whiner, too, though he is not the movie's scapegoat, and within the capaciously sympathetic atmosphere of Missing's personal drama, he has room to grow without simply becoming a different character. It's as though the pure devilishness of Pinochet's rule and the backdoor politics that accomplish it offer the film a free pass toward humane, adult characterization, since however complex, ornery, naïve, and even off-putting Beth, Ed, and their colleagues act from time to time, they're guaranteed of holding our sympathy. We're able to see them without resorting to pre-formed judgments, a morality the film is eager to endorse more generally.

All of these private evolutions are handled quite succinctly, and even though the film occasionally stumbles at keeping all balls in the air—a barroom confidence between Ed and Beth is laboriously set-up and improbably candid—it still manages to layer its characters without letting them supercede the real crises. Costa-Gavras has always done his best work in the back of his scenes; the bloodied corpses lying in the streets, the random body-searches happening on every sidewalk are even more horrifying because they are so rarely the focus of a shot. It's an ingenious way of chronicling the public nightmare even while a different subplot is unraveling in the foreground, and we absorb the coup as the enveloping circumstance it is, not as a set of discrete acts. The machinery of violence hums behind every sequence.

In fact, the film yields a much more persuasive portrait of the coup when it isn't looking at it directly. Cannily fashioned as a thriller, the movie needs a secret to uncover, and here it runs into some trouble. With evidence mounting that the U.S. government played a key role in Pinochet's seizure of power, and that the U.S. Embassy has subsequently conspired to muffle those voices who make and circulate this secret—voices like Charlie Horman's—the film itself seems as wide-eyed at the revelation as Ed is. Even Beth, irreverent of politicians since we've known her, suddenly seems astonished, like she's piecing together a puzzle we thought she'd already solved. True, Kissinger and Nixon's off-record statements and initiatives against Allende are more publicly evident now than they were in 1973, or even in 1982; upon the film's premiere, then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig (under Reagan) called a formal press conference where he continued to denounce the film's attributions of American complicity. It is immensely to the credit of Missing that it draws these still-sensitive connections. At the same time, by shaping itself as a quasi-thriller with the secret of American duplicity as the big revelation, Missing dates itself and calls its own political maturity into question. When the baddies show their hand, convinced of their own invulnerability, the sheer braggadoccio of their taunts to Ed Horman feels jarringly out of character.

Wrestling the truths of realpolitik into a suspense-movie format is a smart and cagey move, especially given the dogged apoliticism of most American film, but the price is that of reinstating a view of the world where villains eventually doff their masks and forthrightly admit their ghoulishness. Missing is a first step but an inadequate one toward a real grasp of what happened in Chile and what it means for today; its last act is a Manichean duel between angels and devils that plays like a storybook, albeit a dark and depressing one, that Charlie would have illustrated for tots. Where so many films on political themes preach to the choir, Missing does the opposite. The acting, technique, and story structure are so well-choreographed that an unsuspecting viewer might start asking questions; if you come to the movie pre-convinced of its conclusions, though, you're likely to be a little insulted or else bemused at how Missing attempts to foster shock and suspense within a well-documented and barely deniable chapter in undercover American malfeasance.

But bemused is too supercilious a word, because this is an admirably sincere and technically sound picture on an important subject, and whatever the film's concessions to a reductive good/bad morality, Missing is still a commanding artifact. There's also no better time to watch it than the summer of 2004, as yet another faraway country has been routed of its leadership. Where Allende was a committed socialist, integrating a national infrastructure that allowed his people a chance at collective self-determination, Saddam Hussein was by all credible accounts a dangerous despot and a hair-trigger killer. Here was a ruler we could depose in public, and did, without the "Who, us?" pretenses of our covert Chilean plot. But American foreign policy is notoriously bad on the morning after, not to mention the weeks and months and years after. Yet again, in Iraq, a foreign soccer stadium is filled with bodies; armed trucks and soldiers prowl the streets, terrifying civilians and detaining them virtually at will—and this time, it's we who are on the trucks. The photo-evidence of battle libido that has emerged from the Abu Ghraib prison has launched a wave of scapegoating disbelief, as a divided American homefront either hangs its head at grossly confirmed suspicions or else bristlingly rejects the tangible proof of its own lurid revenge fantasies. Since we never seem to learn, maybe a preachy and teachy film, even one that is already twenty years old, is the best we could get.

Missing has no room for revenge plots, or of any other kind of simple gratification. Beth Horman and Ed Horman learn that their own instincts were right, and they overcome imposing obstacles to learn what they need to learn—but it's hard to imagine any scenario where such validation could taste more sour. Biased, uneven, and a little bit pre-packaged, Missing is still a haunting film, and it ignites a sharp desire for civic engagement, for public accountability, for knowledge that matters instead of knowledge that distracts. It earns your admiration, even as you wish it were a little better, and that the world were much, much better. By following two civilians who learn to ask tough questions, to confront their fears, to insist on the highest standards, it's as good a movie as I can think of at demonstrating what you can do as someone alive during a time of crisis. Who'd want to miss a movie like that? B+

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Actress: Sissy Spacek
Best Actor: Jack Lemmon
Best Adapted Screenplay: Costa-Gavras & Donald Stewart

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Costa-Gavras
Best Actress (Drama): Sissy Spacek
Best Actor (Drama): Jack Lemmon
Best Screenplay: Costa-Gavras & Donald Stewart

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Palme d'Or (Best Picture; tie); Best Actor (Lemmon)
Writers Guild of America: Best Adapted Screenplay (Drama)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Screenplay; Best Film Editing (Françoise Bonnot)

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