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by Brad Wilber

"Chaos and loss in Chile in 1973"
4 stars

Movie buffs jonesing for dark true-life political thrillers could do much worse than treating themselves to a Costa-Gavras marathon. The Greek director shot to fame in 1969 with the French-language Z, his thinly fictionalized biopic about the assassination of Greek activist Gregoris Lambrakis. His most recent film, also in French, was 2003’s AMEN, which speculates on the Vatican’s level of awareness about Nazi atrocities in World War II. Mid-career, Costa-Gavras gave us MISSING, and it’s perhaps his best-known and most-honored English-language work, having earned the Palme d’Or and Best Actor Awards at Cannes in 1982, along with four Oscar nominations. MISSING traverses the themes of both aforementioned films, and indeed of most Costa-Gavras projects—the expendability of individual lives at times of national sea-change, the dangers of becoming a dissenting voice in a volatile climate, and a circling-of-the-wagons mentality in the halls of officialdom.

Like Z, MISSING chronicles the cruel fate of a leftist caught in political upheaval—this time an American freelance writer living in Chile at the time of the 1973 coup that installed right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet. The film is based on Thomas Hauser’s book “The Execution of Charles Horman, An American Sacrifice.” Book and movie build a strong case for U.S. “facilitation” of the overthrow of elected Marxist president Salvador Allende. While the book unabashedly names names, the movie changes or omits them and scrupulously avoids specifying even which country it depicts, deciding to reference only “Latin America.” (This did not stop Nathaniel Davis, the U.S. ambassador to Chile at the time, from suing Costa-Gavras for libel to the tune of $60 million. The suit was ultimately dismissed in 1987).

In the film version, Charles Horman as played by John Shea is a genial, earnest ex-pat, propelled by enlightenment away from his affluent upbringing. He has made a home with his wife (Sissy Spacek, called “Beth” in the film though in fact Mrs. Horman’s name was Joyce) in Santiago, and the vagabond couple has found a certain niche there lending practical support to Allende’s reform efforts.

By chance, Charles is taking in the resort town of Viña del Mar on September 11, 1973, the day when the coup deposing Allende comes off. He notices a sizable coterie of U.S. military. While waiting out the transportation stoppage, Horman exhibits a lot of curiosity about his compatriots’ involvement in the change of regimes. He takes copious notes on the conversations of the day, more out of personal habit than any drive toward a particular journalistic assignment. Once he’s able to reach home base in Santiago, he finds Beth more than a little jittery and the streets subject to baleful drive-bys and staccato machine-gun fire. Beth ventures out on a humanitarian errand and returns herself a couple of days later to a ransacked and empty house. Charles has disappeared, presumably taken captive as an undesirable element.

As Horman’s absence lengthens into several days, his father Edmund (Jack Lemmon) arrives on the scene to add his voice to his daughter-in law’s as they haunt the U.S. consulate making inquiries. Both Lemmon and Spacek rode their good material here to Academy Award nominations. One of the great payoffs of the film is the mercurial dynamic between Ed and Beth/Joyce. Ed seems to blame Beth for the rootless, unconventional life that put Charles in harm’s way. Beth chafes at Ed’s reliance on civility in his face time with diplomats; she has already been through a round of talks and has gotten nowhere by being demure. She fairly dances in her chair at meetings and can’t help but let some profanity erupt. She fumes while Ed beseeches. Ed worries that her outrage will be alienate those in a position to glean information; Beth is convinced that some shrillness is the only way to crack those who seem so determined to stonewall the Hormans. As the movie progresses, Ed and Beth move more and more in tandem, working out their shared frustration and grief as it becomes increasingly certain that Charles will not be coming back to them alive. Many Lemmon-Spacek scenes have impact. The one on the largest scale is where Ed and Beth address the crowd interned at Santiago's National Stadium, which the Pinochet machine has commandeered as a sort of concentration camp. Targeted “dissidents” have been herded there, many of them to await being tortured and worse.

My favorite performance among the supporting cast belongs to David Clennon, who plays U.S. consul Phil Putnam. Over the years, Clennon has done many roles which entail a sort of cordial menace, and Phil is exactly that here—he smiles and spins an impressive web of empty promises and plausible deniability; he is the character whom you most want to scream at, and who best embodies the sense that the consulate is protecting its interests by giving the Hormans the runaround. (Documents released on the Horman case in the 1990s suggest that U.S. intelligence may have fingered Horman as a person of interest to the Pinochet regime, and at worst “did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of GOC [Government of Chile] paranoia.”) This Putnam role may well have laid the groundwork for Clennon’s quietly omnipotent Miles Drentell, the crossover TV character from “thirtysomething” and “Once and Again.”

Clennon’s eventual “thirtysomething” castmate Melanie Mayron plays Terry Simon, a family friend who happens to be visiting the Hormans at this inopportune time. (If you know Mayron only as TV’s Melissa Steadman, try to catch her in this movie, or better yet in her film debut as a hitchhiking teenager in 1974’s HARRY AND TONTO.) And then there is Joe Regalbuto, who went on to star in “Murphy Brown.” Here he portrays Frank Teruggi, a real-life figure and fellow American ex-pat who, separately from Charles, must face the terrors of the Stadium.

The ambience of the movie will remind many of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978). Both use synth scores (this one by Vangelis, MIDNIGHT’s earlier one by Giorgio Moroder) to ratchet up the tension in stories of Americans in peril on foreign soil. MISSING, for all its anonymity, seems to hug more tightly to the facts than does MIDNIGHT as scripted by Oliver Stone, who indulged in many embellishments. Both films were overshadowed at Oscar time by some grander fare (in 1978 by THE DEER HUNTER and COMING HOME, and in 1982 by GANDHI and SOPHIE’S CHOICE). But if you've seen only MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, close acquaintance with MISSING and with Costa-Gavras’s work in general offers many rewards as well.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=6511&reviewer=395
originally posted: 11/30/05 14:38:15
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User Comments

6/10/10 brian Left-leaning, yes, and the hippie/establishment friction is dated, but still riveting. 4 stars
11/02/08 Nem The ending was extremely sad and appaling. 4 stars
9/18/07 Ernesto Catalan One of the saddest films I've ever seen. Superb acting! 5 stars
8/19/07 mr.mike recall it as being disappointing and as R.W.said , leaning to the left. 3 stars
6/23/07 Vince Brilliant-That scene w/Lemmon & Spacek @ the stadium IS emotionally powerfull 5 stars
5/10/06 jonathon lebo interesting,suspensful 4 stars
11/27/03 John a phenomenal film on a compelling subject - Lemmon is superb 5 stars
3/25/03 mr. Pink This is one of the most powerful, political thrillers ever. Lemon and Spacek are brilliant! 5 stars
1/28/03 R.W. Welch Fact-based but left-slanted opus on political troubles in South America. Competently done. 3 stars
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  12-Feb-1982 (PG)
  DVD: 23-Nov-2004



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