The 1982 political film, Missing, by Costa-Gavras (his first American production), is soon to be released on DVD by The Criterion Collection. It’s a good film, but not a great one. This is mostly because it lacks any real poetry, the way Ingmar Bergman’s anti-war film, Shame, has. Yes, it’s well plotted, well acted, well directed, and scrupulously avoids sentimentality. But it also avoids any real higher purpose. Yes, Costa-Gavras is perhaps the foremost political filmmaker of our time, but that does not absolve an artist for failing to strive to dig deeper, core into something more essential, or give a perspective on a known event in a different way that allows for a newer understanding. Of course, these things are not requirements, but they are the hallmarks of greatness.
Nonetheless, Missing is a very good film (it won the 1982 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival), a prose work, if not poetic; and the screenplay by Costa-Gavras and Donald Stewart (which won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay) wears its prosaicness in almost every scene that shows its protagonists relentlessly pushing for the truth. It also showcases probably the best acting performance of the late Jack Lemmon’s long career, and it makes one wish he had done more dramatic roles, for as great a comedic actor as he was (The Odd Couple, The Fortune Cookie, etc.), Woody Allen was correct when he claimed that drama was "sitting at the grownups’ table." It also features some good, if not daring, cinematography by Ricardo Aronovich (the shot of a government helicopter outside of the Horman’s hotel room is the best in the film), and a surprisingly understated musical score by Vangelis.
The film is about the 1973 kidnap, torture, and execution of Harvard graduate Charles Horman (John Shea), a naïve political dreamer from Middle America, who, with wife and friends, thought he could make a difference by publishing a left wing newspaper in Chile during the Marxist regime of the newly elected Salvador Allende. Then, when the CIA-backed coup of Augusto Pinochet occurred, he and his cronies were personae non grata. The film shows a bit of Horman’s life with his wife, Beth (Sissy Spacek), and friends, before he goes missing. After that, we get the appearance of Charles’ father, a conservative Christian Scientist businessman named Ed (Lemmon). Very much then happens in the film, save that Ed and Beth both get the runaround from scummy American political waterboys, and Ed grows more and more cynical, after, early on, believing that the American government could do no wrong and that neither Charles nor Beth could do no right.
In this sense, the film is rather formulaic. By film’s end, it is clear that Ed and Beth will bond, and that Charles will turn up dead, as did another of his American friends. Formula almost always mitigates against higher art, but, if done well enough, the art can be good and compelling, and this film is. Shea is quite good in his role, and Spacek shows her acting chops to the full extent. The rest of the cast, from secondary roles (government apparatchiks, reporters, Chilean locals) to the Mexican Army extras, are merely adequate. It should be noted that Costa-Gavras never formally identifies the nation as Chile, nor the coup as Pinochet’s, but by film’s end, mentions of Santiago (Chile’s capital) become numerous, and the connections are not logically avoidable.
The DVD comes in a two disk edition, and the film is in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio; although there really was not a need for a second disk, since the first disk has only the film and a theatrical trailer. In this day and age, and barring the explicit refusal of the director (or his heirs) to allow a commentary track, this oversight is simply unacceptable. The very reason DVDs came to displace VHS tapes — other than the hassle of rewinding — is so people could listen to commentaries. Many a mediocre film has been able to get a favorable notice in the DVD format due to a good audio commentary.
Yet, after switching over to their new C logo, The Criterion Collection has released an alarmingly high number of titles that lack an audio commentary. Yes, economic times are tough, but being parsimonious on the basics is not a way to reward customer loyalty. The second disk has all the other extra features, and they are quite good. There are a number of video interviews. The one with Costa-Gavras is the best, because it is centered on the film, not the political aspects. The interview with Joyce Horman (called Beth in the film) is therefore not as compelling. Yes, I don’t begrudge her her right to drone on about her husband’s murder, but that does not obligate me to recommend a viewer subject themselves to such.
The film’s producers, Edward and Mildred Lewis, provide some insight into the politics of filmmaking, and writer Thomas Hauser, whose book The Execution Of Charles Horman provided the basics of the film, is solid as well. One good point learned is that Costa-Gavras deliberately recast the film as a father-son drama rather than an examination of the Pinochet coup. There is also a clip of interviews from the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, where Ed Horman, Jack Lemmon, Costa-Gavras, and Joyce Horman are interviewed. It’s rather standard fare. So is the interview with journalist Peter Kornbluh, who documented the coup and Horman's case. Again, only if one is a CIA or Cold War buff would I recommend sitting through that feature.
Then there are highlights of a 2002 dinner honoring the film. Again, standard fare. Interestingly, whereas Criterion often has mediocre written works about their films included in booklets, this film’s booklet has some of the best extras: a good essay by film critic Michael Wood, a letter from the Horman clan, an interview with Costa-Gavras, and the U.S. State Department’s official response to the Horman execution. Overall, a solid package, but the lack of audio commentary is a glaringly HUGE omission.
Perhaps the best aspect of the film is that it does not dwell on gore and violence, instead letting the aftermath paint pictures of what occurred within the viewer’s mind, for the imagination is almost always more powerful, disturbing, and graphic than special effects, something this modestly budgeted film conspicuously lacks.
The worst moment is likely when a couple of the American flacks at the U.S. Consulate are caught in a lie by Ed, who knows his son has been killed, and they tell him his son is likely still "in hiding." The duo so brazenly mock Ed, by telling him that his son should have expected to get burned, just as if he had gone snooping around into the New York Mafia’s business. Now, no doubt this claim is a true one, and Charles’ naïvete certainly aided his demise, but no government officials would be that brazen and stupid to taunt an American citizen grieving his child’s death, much less one like Horman, who obviously had some connections in the government. While this is in keeping with the film’s whole portrayal of arrogant Yankee cowboys, it does not square with the obsessive nature of the CIA in covering up their crimes around the world. Yes, it manifests the arc and direction of the film, but it does so at the cost of any realism.
Still, Missing is a film worth seeing, both for its technical quality and its historical mise-en-scene. Just don’t expect a film that will last for years in your memory; but do expect to not have that sinking feeling of another unrecoverable two hours of your life. And, given all the shit that Hollywood produces for the Lowest Common Denominator masses today, that’s more than just faint praise.