Screenplay: Costa-Gavras, Donald E. Stewart
Based on a Book by: Thomas Hauser
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Melanie Mayron, John Shea, Charles Cioffi
Running Time: 112 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Films based on true stories are a risky business. Usually by this I mean audiences and critics like to moan about historical accuracy and don’t often appreciate changes made to make the story work on screen. With Costa-Gavras’ Missing however, I mean more than that. The film points a clear finger at the US government being involved in the military coup in Chile in 1973, before anything had been officially proven (the level of involvement still hasn’t been confirmed, although in 2000 the CIA was found to have “probably appeared to have condoned” it). This is pretty ballsy for a filmmaker in general, but particularly surprising here is the fact that The Missing was produced by the big Hollywood studio, Universal Pictures. It’s director is less surprising though, as Gavras had already made several politically charged thrillers, such as Z, Special Section and State of Seige. The film made quite an impact on release, picking up a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar and a shared Palme d’Or. These days it’s less well known, but luckily Powerhouse have picked it up to include on their superb Indicator label.
Missing is set in a South American country (clearly Chile, but this isn’t explicitly stated) where married couple Beth (Sissy Spacek) and Charles Horman (John Shea) are staying due to an interest in the new government in place (based on that of president Salvador Allende). However, a military coup suddenly shakes the country to its core as a dictatorship is installed through horrifically violent methods. Charles and his politically like-minded journalist friends want to find out exactly what’s going on, but they’d also like to leave when it gets too much. As they make preparations for this however, Charles goes missing.
Ed (Jack Lemmon), Charlie’s straight-laced, religious father heads to Chile soon after to work with the US government to try and find his son. He initially trusts their efforts, whilst Beth doesn’t and feels she’s being fobbed off. The two struggle to stay civil as they trudge around the country looking through morgues and speaking to hordes of officials, friends and witnesses. However, as the truth becomes ever more apparent, the pair grow closer and Ed also begins to better understand his son, who he’d previously grown distant to, due to differing political beliefs and world views.
To avoid getting his film jumped on by supporters of the government at the time of the coup, as well as not to offend those still alive that are depicted in the film, Gavras took painstaking measures to make sure it was as accurate as possible. He interviewed people living in the country at the time and even spoke to the real Joyce (Beth’s actual name) and Ed Horman, letting them have a final say before signing the edit off. That realism can be felt on screen as there are no scenes that feel glossed over or artificially placed for the purposes of entertainment. By all accounts, other than some journalists being merged into one character and another couple of minor details, everything you see on screen actually happened. Gavras was careful not to show anything not witnessed by the central protagonists or anyone else alive and interviewed either, so nobody could argue “that didn’t happen”.
The film is thankfully not just the cold, hard facts displayed on screen though. Gavras sensibly gives the film a very personal focus. Although the political intentions of the film are clear, it’s essentially about a father bonding with his estranged son from a heartbreaking distance, as well as a wife’s quest for truth and closure on a personal tragedy. The interesting dynamic between the pair, as well as that of Ed and Charlie, help elevate the drama to something more interesting than your typical missing persons drama too, on top of the political content.
This intimate drama played out against a wide-scale incident is made ever more effective by two wonderful lead performances. Lemmon and Spacek are always a safe pair of hands, but here they really prove their worth. Lemmon is particularly good, playing a rare non-comic role. It’s truly one of his most powerful performances and that’s saying a lot. He does so much with his eyes, subtle facial expressions and body language. The film in general manages to tread a delicate line between understatement and gut-wrenching tragedy.
Gavras directs some very powerful scenes too. There’s a disturbing trip through a makeshift morgue where piles of bodies litter every room and even the skylights. A heartfelt plea in a stadium full of ‘political prisoners’ is profoundly moving too. A more symbolic sequence that sees a white horse run through the city streets, chased by a gun-toting army Jeep, provides the most striking shot though.
Gavras’ political intentions are blatantly clear so the film isn’t necessarily subtle, but it remains immensely powerful as the drama is carefully handled and the suggestions made against the US government are still shocking (and disturbingly relatable today). Aided by two great performances, the film is driven by its lead characters rather than any mystery or other thriller tropes. It’s fairly clear what happened to Charlie early on, but, like Beth and Ed, the audience cling on to hope and simply want to know the truth for closure. With an equally effective sense of fear and tension throughout, in its depiction of the coup, it’s a brilliant film that’s well worthy of rediscovery.
Missing is being re-released on 27th August by Powerhouse Films on Blu-Ray as part of their Indicator label in the UK. The picture and audio quality are both excellent.
There are plenty of special features included:
- Original mono audio
– The Guardian Interview with Costa-Gavras (1984, 85 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Derek Malcolm at London’s National Film Theatre
– The Guardian Interview with Jack Lemmon (1986, 116 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Jonathan Miller at the National Film Theatre
– Costa-Gavras: Cannes Film Festival Interview (1982, 3 mins): short interview with the director
– Costa-Gavras: Journal Antenne 2 Interview (1982, 4 mins): news article with journalist Christine Ockrent
– Many Americas (2006, 31 mins): Costa-Gavras reflects upon the production and reception of the film
– Freedom of Information (2006, 27 mins): Joyce Horman discusses the real-life events behind Missing and the experience of being portrayed on screen
– Politically Personal (2018, 24 mins): a new filmed appreciation by filmmaker and actor Keith Gordon
– Original theatrical trailer
– Image gallery: promotional photography and publicity material
– New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Limited edition exclusive 40-page booklet with a new essay by Michael Pattison, an interview with Costa-Gavras, an interview with journalist Thomas Hauser, an overview of responses to the film, and extensive film credits
-Limited Edition of 3,000 copies
There’s plenty to dig into here and it’s all great. I particularly liked the piece featuring Keith Gordon and it’s fascinating to hear the real Joyce Horman’s thoughts on her life being put on film. She also helps fill you in on the political landscape being presented. Equally, the ‘Many Americas’ piece is necessary viewing and Indicator’s booklets are always worth a thorough read-through. I haven’t got around to the two feature length interviews yet (which run under the film as commentary tracks), but I intend to as soon as I have time and imagine they’re as good as everything else in this wonderful package.