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1982 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic widescreen / 122 min. / Street Date October 21, 2008 / 39.95
Starring Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Melanie Mayron, John Shea, Charles Cioffi, David Clennon, Richard Venture, Jerry Hardin, Richard Bradford, Joe Regalbuto.
Ricardo Aronovich
Production Design Peter Jamison
Film Editor Françoise Bonnot
Original Music Vangelis
Written by Costa-Gavras, Donald Stewart from a book by Thomas Hauser
Produced by Edward Lewis, Mildred Lewis
Directed by Costa-Gavras

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Still considered a highly controversial title, Cost-Gavras' 1981 Missing is a rare case of a docu-drama from disputed personal testimony, that has been vindicated by history. The facts around the disappearance and execution of American writer Charles Horman in Santiago, Chile during the Pinochet coup are now known, along with alarming revelations about the State Department and U.S. military's role in planning and orchestrating the overthrow of the democratically elected Allende administration. Nixon and Kissinger gave the orders for the C.I.A. to aid the coup. Pinochet's army executed thousands of Chileans and made many others "disappear".

Constantine Costa-Gavras made a big international impact eleven years earlier with "Z", a compelling story about political assassination in another dictatorship. He and co-screenwriter Donald Stewart won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for Universal's Missing a politically aware film clearly meant to provoke a reexamination of America's relationship with Latin America. It is filmed primarily in English and stars the popular Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek.

Charlie and Beth Horman (John Shea and Sissy Spacek) are among dozens of young Americans stranded in Santiago when the coup breaks out. Denied aid by the U.S. Embassy, they find it impossible to move about in the city. Roving army squads are arresting thousands and shooting people in the street. Trapped after curfew, Beth spends the night cowering in an alcove, and returns home to discover that Charlie has been taken by a military squad. Embassy officials offer no help, insinuate that Charles is a troublemaker and ask Beth for the names of her husband's friends. Charles' father Ed (Jack Lemmon), a New York businessman, flies to Chile to get action on his son's release from custody. Ed openly blames Beth for her and Charlie's lifestyle but changes his mind when confronted by the Ambassador and his patronizing assistants. The embassy's version of events conflicts with the facts, and the Ambassador becomes irate when Ed disputes the official claim that the U.S. has nothing to do with the coup. Beth and Ed continue their search in the hazardous city.

There's nothing overtly propagandistic about Costa-Gavras' approach. He invents no scenes and shows only events personally witnessed by Charlie's wife and father, their friend Terry Simon (Melanie Mayron) and Charlie's writer friend David Holloway (Keith Szarabajka of 2008's The Dark Knight). Ed Horman assumes that Charlie "must have done something" to be arrested. Flashbacks show that Charlie is a free spirit who translated New York Times articles into Spanish for a Chilean paper, and writes children's books in his spare time. Stuck in Viñ del Mar as the coup begins, Charlie and Terry become afternoon guests of American military men and shadowy plain-clothes operatives. His crime is being sympathetic with Allende's administration, and learning too much about covert American activities.

David Holloway and his friend Frank Teruggi (Joe Regalbuto) are arrested and taken to a giant sports arena. Thousands of detainees are held in the stands while an unknown number are executed by death squads in the tunnels below. Costa-Gavras shows no tortures or executions or other speculative scenes, instead taking us into hospital morgues and basements overflowing with murder victims. In one scene Charlie awakens in a seafront hotel, to find a Chilean army helicopter outside his window, pointing a machine gun in his direction.

Lifelong Republican Ed Horman receives a crash course in a reality that he previously dismissed as leftist paranoia. It's obvious that the Embassy officials are lying to him. One even has the temerity to remind Ed that if he'd just stayed home, his complacent world view wouldn't have been challenged. To absolve the embassy and blame Charlie for his own disappearance, the official asks Ed to compare his son to a foreigner who came to America and ran afoul of the Mafia. Would Ed blame the police?

Missing is a superb movie that plays to all segments of the political spectrum. Costa-Gavras makes no speeches and respects the intelligence of his audience. The story unfolds like a dreadful mystery that pays off with disillusion or enlightenment, depending on one's point of view. The director is not above the occasional artful shot, as when Beth watches an army jeep chase a white horse through the streets of the city. But the political terror is communicated very strongly -- on the streets of Santiago, the authorities are gunning people down indiscriminately. In far too many countries, such conditions are norm, the everyday reality.

Melanie Mayron is sweet-tempered as Terry Simon and John Shea is endearing as Charlie Horman. Various state department and military intelligence men are played by Charles Cioffi, David Clennon (The Thing), Richard Venture and Richard Bradford (The Chase). Janice Rule is a journalist experienced in reporting from unstable Latin American countries. Both Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon were nominated for best acting Oscars. Despite all that happens, the audience is left with a positive ending, in the bond of understanding that forms between Ed and his daughter-in-law Beth.

Criterion's 2-Disc DVD set of Missing is a terrific enhanced transfer with excellent sound and picture. The first disc adds a trailer, while the second provides an impressive lineup of extras arranged by disc producer Abbey Lustgarten. Lengthy new interviews allow Costa-Gavras to explain the genesis of the project and how Mexico substituted for Santiago, Chile; when the Mexican Army refused access to tanks 48 hours before filming, Costa-Gavras' Mexican crew built excellent, convincing wooden mockups. Producers Edward and Mildred Lewis also talk about the production, as does Thomas Hauser, the author of the nonfiction source book. "Beth" Horman's real name is Joyce. She speaks at length in the disc's most dramatic interview. She verifies facts about her husband and shows artwork from their long-ago animation project. Coupled with the film, Ms. Horman's interview testimony is deeply affecting.

The most convincing extra for doubters is an interview with Peter Kornbluh, an author of books about the Pinochet years. Kornbluh shows an entire paper trail of documents, including key State Department paperwork initially blacked out in entirety, and uncovered paragraph by paragraph after years of partial disclosure. Not only do we see notes in which President Nixon orders the go-ahead for the coup, other documents acknowledge the State Department's complicity in the overthrow of the Allende government.

Another video extra presents coverage of a 2002 "Charles Horman Truth Project" event honoring Missing, with the actors in attendance. We also see French TV interviews at Cannes with Jack Lemmon, and Ed and Joyce Horman.

The fat insert pamphlet has an essay by Michael Wood, a letter from Terry Simon and a Costa-Gavras text interview. It is followed by the State Department's official response to the release of Missing, flatly denying everything later proven true. The pamphlet ends with Costa-Gavras' opinion of the State Department's response. The European director asserts that the United States has more freedom of speech than any other country he knows, and that the existence of Missing is in itself a pro-American statement.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Missing rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: New and archive interviews, declasified documents; essays, statements. video of a banquet celebration of the movie.
Packaging: 2 Discs in Keep case
Reviewed: October 16, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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