Late in Missing, director Costa-Gavras' unbearably sad, righteously angry English-language debut, Jack Lemmon, playing the role of Ed Horman, starts down a staircase after exiting an American ambassador's office. Oblivious to his surroundings, he continues up another staircase for a few steps, realizes where he is and turns around to descend in the proper direction.
It's a throwaway moment, a transition between scenes, but it so neatly captures the aimless futility embodied by Lemmon's character and by extension, the film itself. That the film is based upon real-life experiences makes the moment all the more heartbreaking -- it's not difficult to picture a dazed parent, reeling from unbearable news, staggering around a cold, corrupt bureaucratic outpost, his faith in his ideals greatly shaken.
Missing's power stems not from gruesome depictions of brutal military regimes -- although instances of that do crop up -- but from the raw emotions felt by families. Controversial upon its release for daring to peel back the ugly realities of American foreign policies (the State Department went so far as to issue an official response to the film -- more than, y'know, Body of Lies can say), Costa-Gavras paints the United States government as alternately disingenuous and plainly disinterested in the problems of one citizen, not exactly a shining beacon of democratic purity.
The film's plot -- adapted from Thomas Hauser's book "The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice" by Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart -- is elemental in its simplicity and based upon a true story. In 1973, American journalist Charles Horman vanished after the US-backed coup of then Chilean president Salvador Allende; his father and wife spent weeks searching in vain for him and with, apparently, next to no help from the American government.
Ed Horman's son Charles (John Shea) is a sweetly naive liberal, spending his days in South America helping produce a left-wing newspaper while his doting wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) waits nervously at home. One afternoon, Charles is swept up in routine military raids, disappearing from the face of the earth. It's the search for the truth about what happened to him that brings devout Christian Scientist Ed together with Beth; the pair's odyssey through endless meetings, clandestine investigations and trying emotional encounters essentially turn the film into a dual character study.
Perhaps the most haunting aspect of Missing is that more than 20 years after its initial release, the film's narrative remains as relevant as ever. Seventies-style paranoia is back in vogue in contemporary books and films, but with a pair of wars being waged in America's name and doubtless many left-wing types attempting to suss out our nation's motives at home and abroad, it's not much of a stretch to overlay a messy coup in Chile and disappeared journalists on the ouster of, say, Saddam Hussein. History, as is so very often said, is doomed to repetition by those who do not take heed.
Yet Missing never slips into didactic chest-thumping, mostly because Costa-Gavras keeps the focus upon the anguished family; he slips in and out of the narrative for little asides, flashbacks to Charles's role in everyone's lives that help fill in the details about a man who could've too easily become an abstraction, an empty vessel into which the wrong ideas were poured. The director is also careful to underscore that Charles was flawed and not some fearless, assured ideologue -- it doesn't lessen the ultimate impact at all, but does provide a welcome note of authenticity.
Lemmon and Spacek are magnificent throughout, with the lion's share of the praise going to Lemmon's tightly controlled performance (which somehow evokes his turn in Save the Tiger) which won him best acting honors at Cannes and an Oscar nomination (the film did win an Oscar for best adapted screenplay). Working in concert with the stark, occasionally beautiful images is composer Vangelis' liquid, luminous score which conveys melancholy without becoming maudlin.
At its heart, Missing is a film about the mistrust of government and how easily idealism can crack when faced with poisonous practicality. As Ed and Beth walk away from the camera at the film's conclusion, they are seeing the world with fresh eyes. Sometimes the not knowing is less painful than knowing -- the death in their family has, if nothing else, irrevocably altered their perceptions of each other, but also those in power. A chilling, truly powerful work of cinematic art.
Previously available on a bare-bones region one disc released in 2006 (that was reportedly anamorphic), the Criterion Collection's edition provides a wealth of supplemental context for the film (detailed below) alongside exceptional audio/visual presentation.
Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, this anamorphic widescreen transfer is, as expected from Criterion, terrific, particularly taking into consideration the director's preference for hazy, blown-out natural light in certain scenes and a tendency for soft focus mixed in with verite, hand-held camerawork. The DVD packaging states the film has undergone a "high-definition digital" restoration, but not having the 2006 disc available for comparison, I can't speak to what, if anything, has been bettered or worsened about the image. Nevertheless, this is another stellar Criterion presentation.
The Dolby 1.0 mono track is perfectly adequate, conveying dialogue (in both English and Spanish) and Vangelis' moody score cleanly, with no drop-out or distortion. Again, not having the 2006 disc available for comparison, I can't speak as to whether Criterion did any digital touch-up, but there's very little to complain about here -- a fine complement to the visuals. Optional English subtitles are included.
Aside from the film, the first disc only contains the theatrical trailer, presented in anamorphic widescreen. The second disc houses the meat of the supplements. It kicks off with a pair of video interviews with Costa-Gavras, one from 1982 (presented in fullscreen) and one from 2006 (presented in anamorphic widescreen). Each interview is presented in French with forced English subtitles and run for an aggregate of 32 minutes, 30 seconds. A 30 minute, 19 second video interview with Joyce Horman, Charles's widow (played by Sissy Spacek in the film), is included (presented in anamorphic widescreen). Seventeen minute, 27 seconds' worth of video interviews with producers Edward and Mildred Lewis, producer Sean Daniel and author Thomas Hauser on the making of Missing (presented in anamorphic widescreen). A 19 minute, 22 second vintage TV segment, from the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, including interviews with Costa-Gavras, Lemmon, Ed Horman, Joyce Horman and Horman family friend Terry Simon is included (presented in fullscreen).
The fascinating, 19 minute and 28 second featurette "Pursuing Truth: An Interview with Peter Kornbluth" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) hinges on an interview with Kornbluth, director of the National Security Archive's Chile Documentation Project at George Washington University. Kornbluth has studied the subject of America's involvement in Chile for more than 30 years and examines declassified documents relating to the State Department's involvement in the 1973 Chilean military coup and its knowledge of Horman's execution. The 20 minute, 51 second featurette "In Honor of Missing" (presented in fullscreen) includes footage from a 2002 event hosted by the Charles Horman Truth Project -- created by his widow, Joyce, to support efforts to bring Augusto Pinochet and his regime to justice -- that recognized Costa-Gavras' film for its impact on human rights awareness. Those speaking include Gabriel Byrne, Costa-Gavras, Joyce Horman, Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Melanie Myron and Lemmon's son Chris, among others.
A 36-page booklet, which contains essays by Michael Wood and Terry Simon, along with a Costa-Gavras interview and the text of the U.S. State Department's official response to Missing, completes the set.
Perhaps the most haunting aspect of Missing is that more than 20 years after its initial release, the film's narrative remains as relevant as ever. Seventies-style paranoia is back in vogue in contemporary books and films, but with a pair of wars being waged in America's name and doubtless many left-wing types attempting to suss out our nation's motives at home and abroad, it's not much of a stretch to overlay a messy coup in Chile on the ouster of, say, Saddam Hussein. History, as is so very often said, is doomed to repetition by those who do not take heed. A chilling, truly powerful work of cinematic art. Highly recommended.