Director: Costa-Gavras
Screenplay: Costa-Gavras & Donald Stewart (based on the book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice by Thomas Hauser)
Stars: Jack Lemmon (Ed Horman), Sissy Spacek (Beth Horman), Melanie Mayron (Terry Simon), John Shea (Charlie Horman), Charles Cioffi (Capt. Ray Tower), David Clennon (Consul Phil Putnam), Richard Venture (U.S. Ambassador), Jerry Hardin (Col. Sean Patrick), Richard Bradford (Andrew Babcock), Joe Regalbuto (Frank Teruggi), Keith Szarabajka (David Holloway), John Doolittle (David McGeary), Janice Rule (Kate Newman)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1982
Country: U.S.
MissingCosta-Gavras’s Missing has gone from being speculative to definitive. It is a rare based-on-true-events political thriller whose conjectures about then-mysterious cover-ups and governmental deception have since been vindicated. At the time Missing was released, it was a center of controversy, to the extent that members of the U.S. State Department on whom characters in the film were based filed a lawsuit claiming that they had been libeled (it was later dismissed). Coming out two years into the Reagan era made the film that much more attention-grabbing, as the Great Communicator’s “Morning in America” ethos was well on its way to dulling the collective memories of Watergate, Vietnam, and all the other cloudy travails of the 1970s. What an odd time for Costa-Gavras, one of the most renowned of leftist European political filmmakers, to make his American debut.

And what a debut it was. Few studio-produced films with A-list stars cause the U.S. State Department to write three-page written responses, but that is precisely what happened two days before Missing debuted in theaters. Given his topical proclivities and uncanny ability to mix the emotional and the political, the Greek-born Costa-Gavras was particularly well-suited to the material, and he made the most of it. The themes were old hat for him, particularly the structuring narrative arc of a conservative character having his eyes opened to the realities of the world in which he lives, but in Missing he hones them to a sharp point with which he can jab the complacent from within.

Although the name of the country is never explicitly mentioned by any character in the film, Missing takes place in Chile during the 1973 coup led by the Chilean military against the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende. What was not known at the time, and has since come out via declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, is that the U.S. government was not only deeply involved in the coup, but helped plan and execute it. Caught up in the coup were thousands of people with leftist sensibilities, many of whom were rounded up and interned in Chile’s National Stadium. Many of them were tortured, and roughly 750 of them were summarily executed without any kind of trial. Among those were two Americans, and driving questions in Missing is how much the U.S. government knew about the deaths of the citizens they were supposed to be protecting.

The reason Costa-Gavras’s films are so affecting, and why those filmmakers and critics of a more pronounced political strip tend to dismiss his work, is because he evokes his larger themes through conventional narrative frameworks. He evokes global pain through the stories of individual characters, an approach that always carries the risk of hiding the many behind the few. Yet, in Missing it works because Costa-Gavras never lets us forget the bigger picture and uses his small-scale mystery as a means of both evoking more horrifying truths that arguably evade representation (how else do you cinematically convey hundreds of senseless murders outside of simply showing them?) and suggesting that such events are always a possibility. The underlying theme of every Costa-Gavras film can be summarized as “Be ever vigilant.”

He masterfully evokes the violence, chaos, and fear of a military coup even as he avoids direct representation of killing and torture. He constantly keeps the presence of the coup at the edges of the frame--bodies littering the streets, military vehicles driving in the background, loudspeakers booming warnings about the impending curfew. When the violence of the coup does take center stage, most notably in a harrowing sequence that takes place in a make-shift morgue littered with hundreds of unclaimed bodies and a surreal shot of a beautiful white horse galloping down a deserted street with a military vehicle seemingly pursuing it, the film takes on the liquid qualities of a nightmare.

The main character in Missing is Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon), a deeply conservative and self-assured New York businessman who travels to Chile when his son, Charlie (John Shea), disappears during the coup. In traveling so far to find him, it is clear that Ed loves his son, but he doesn’t understand him and in many ways doesn’t respect him. Ed’s ingrained conservatism and political tunnel vision make it impossible for him to grasp the significance of Charlie’s life abroad, working as a translator for a leftwing newspaper and dreaming of writing children’s books. It seems silly and fatuous to Ed, and at his worst he blames Charlie for his own disappearance, suggesting that, had he lived right (like his father), none of this would have happened.

Charlie, of course, is not present to bear witness to his father’s anger and frustration, so it is directed primarily at Beth (Sissy Spacek), Charlie’s wife who shares her husband’s sensibilities and refuses to believe that the U.S. officials with whom they are working don’t know anything about what has happened. To Ed, her fears are just outdated anti-American paranoia, but as the story progresses and he and Beth begin to dig up their own facts that contradict the official statements being given to them by various ambassadors and military men, a transformation takes place. Ed is not so much radicalized as he is awoken to the reality that his own government has interests that do not always align with the protection of individuals. When we first meet him, Ed sees “America” and “Americans” as the same thing and assumes that his government shares that view, but by the end of the film he comes to realize that the former is an abstraction that must be protected at all costs, even if that means the killing of some of the latter.

In adapting Thomas Hauser’s book The Execution of Charles Horman, Costa-Gavras and coscreenwriters Donald Stewart and John Nichols (the latter of whom was uncredited) keep their primary focus on Ed’s journey through the surreal, bureaucratic nightmare woven by U.S. and Chilean officials that leads to his political awakening, but they also flashback at various points to show Charlie before his disappearance. These sequences are usually motivated by various interviews, and the unreliability of memory is literalized at one point when Charlie’s arrest is envisioned several different ways (once with a military truck, once with a civilian truck). Yet, the difficulty of piecing together past events from fragments does not destabilize Costa-Gavras’s underlying emphasis on the unwavering nature of truth. It’s out there, the film contends, even as multiple forces work to hide and subvert it. Thus, Missing is a powerful testament to the perseverance of those who seek truth, and its vindication so many years later has only intensified its effect.

Missing Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Video interview with Costa-Gavras
  • Video interview with Joyce Horman
  • Archival video interviews from the 1982 Cannes Film Festival with Costa-Gavras, Jack Lemmon, Ed Horman, and Joyce Horman
  • “Pursing Truth: Interview with Peter Kornbluh” author of The Pinochet File, examining declassified documents concerning the 1973 military coup in Chile and the case of Charles Horman
  • Highlights from the 2002 Charles Horman Truth Project event honoring Missing, with actors Sissy Spacek, John Shea, and Melanie Mayron, among others
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring a new essay by critic Michael Wood, an open letter from Horman family friend Terry Simon, an interview with Costa-Gavras, and the U.S. State Department’s official response to Missing
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 21, 2008

    Criterion’s new high-definition transfer for Missing was made from a 35mm interpositive and digitally restored, resulting in an excellent presentation (the film has been available on DVD for several years, but I do not know how that transfer compares). The film has a fairly muted color palette dominated by the grays and browns of Mexico City standing in for Santiago, Chile, and the general look of the film is slightly soft, which is typical of films of its era. You can see some definite film grain, especially in the darker scenes, but it all looks good. The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic track and digitally restored, and while it is understandably limited, it gets the job done.
    While the first disc of this two-disc set is given to the film and the original theatrical trailer, the second disc includes a strong set of supplements that help to contextualize this important film cinematically, politically, and historically. The most fascinating of the supplements is “Pursing Truth,” a 20-minute featurette in which Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive’s Chile Documentation Project at the George Washington University, takes us through the various government documents that have been declassified in the years following Missing’s release and effectively vindicate its speculations. To get a sense of Costa-Gavras’s role in making the film, there are two video interviews with the director, one that was recorded for a news program when the film was released in 1982 and a longer interview conducted in 2006 for the film’s French DVD release (together the two interviews runs just over half an hour). The longer interview is extremely informative and also includes a lot of great behind-the-scenes photographs from the production. There is also a half-hour interview with Joyce Horman (Charles Horman’s wife), who talks at length about her actual experiences and her reactions to Missing. The film’s unlikely road to production is well covered in “Producing Missing,” an 18-minute featurette that includes interviews with producers Edward and Mildred Lewis and Sean Daniel and writer Thomas Hauser. In addition to all that, there is a 19-minute French television interview with Costa-Gavras, Jack Lemmon, Ed Horman, Joyce Horman, and Terry Simon from the 1982 Cannes Film Festival and 20 minutes of footage from an event sponsored by the Charles Horman Truth Project in 2002 to recognize the effect Missing has had on human rights awareness (the highlights include host Gabriel Byrne, Costa-Gavras, Joyce Horman, and actors Sissy Spacek, John Shea, and Melanie Mayron, among others).

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Universal Pictures

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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