MISSED BY MISSING
Time: apx. 2hrs.
By The Editors
Missing, with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, is a well-crafted, powerful film. The acting is good. Jack Lemmon is fine as the middle-aged New York businessman on the lookout for his slightly disreputable son. Sissy Spacek brings her own brand of honesty and realism to her role as the wife of the missing Charles Herman. The other actors and actresses turn in sound, understated performances. Missing is full of realistic scenes and credible characters. One has met these people.
The rhetoric of the film is restrained, and thereby gains in effectiveness. Jack Lemmon, as Ed Horman, arrives in Santiago concerned and irritated that his ne'er-do-well son has gotten himself in trouble. His portrayal of the typical father, arriving in Fort Lauderdale to pickup the pieces of junior's shattered Easter holiday, is masterful and slightly comic. There are some exasperating scenes between him and Sissy Spacek over dinner. He refuses to accept the possibility that his son is a political prisoner, in spite of the fact that their dinner conversation is interrupted by sporadic automatic weapons fire. His determination to ignore the civil war raging in Chile-and thus to reject his daughter-in-law's passion and fear as so much anti-establishmentarianism-even survives the intrusion of a military helicopter chasing enemies of the junta through the streets. One of the most effective of these scenes occurs when Ed Horman arrives at the Santiago Airport. He is greeted by a representative of the U.S. embassy, and the two walk hastily through the corridors of an airport that could be anywhere in the United States. In the background, through a glass door, we see a soldier brutally taking a Chilean woman away. She cries out, "Leave me alone! Leave me alone!" Her children try to rescue her from the uniformed goons. Horman breaks his rapid-fire dialogue with the consular official to look back over his shoulder at the disturbance. He asks, "Say, what's going on in this country, anyway?" He is the essential American who thinks that everyplace is like Schenectady.
He soon learns differently. The subtitle of this film, which claims to be based on documentary evidence, could be The Political Education of A Typical American. By the time he witnesses at close range the machine gun attack by soldiers, across a crowded boulevard in broad daylight, on two young men who have been spraying the words "Militares-Asasinos" on a wall, Ed Horman's education is complete. He is forced by his own witness to admit that the Chilean Junta is a crowd of fascist murderers, and that his own son is very likely dead-which in fact he is.
Ed Horman, in the course of his own inquiries, uncovers enough information to believe that the murder of his son could only have occurred with the express approval of the United States ambassador. He confronts the ambassador in his office. Under the smiling face of Richard Nixon, framed prominently on the wall, the ambassador and the sinister Jack Tower stonewall any U.S. involvement in the coup. The irony of this scene is that Ed Horman had made it clear, earlier in his search, that he does not care what the U.S. government has done in Chile, as long as they can help him find his son. The death of Charles Horman teaches him a bitter lesson-that political irresponsibility can hurt even the privileged ranks of New York's business elite. The ambassador tells Ed Horman that he must understand that what is going on in Chile is in the defense of U.S. interests. Horman replies that his interest has not been defended. The Ambassador answers that some 300 U.S. companies do business in Chile. "That's your interest." Horman looks sadly out at the empty, manicured embassy lawn and says quietly, "Maybe that's why it is empty out there." As he runs to leave the room, Jack Tower speaks. He tells him that neither he nor his son appreciate the seriousness of the situation. "Your son played with fire down here, and maybe he got burned."
In the final scene, Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek are leaving Santiago, As they enter the departure lounge at the airport (passing rows of military guards who seem to be everywhere), he says to the dutiful and deceptive embassy hacks who have followed him throughout his journey, "Thank God we are going back to a country where they still put people like you in jail." But do they really? The people he is talking about are the representatives of that country, as the smiling photos of Nixon and Kissinger, and the prominently displayed U.S. commercial logos-Marlboro, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Coors-keep reminding us. With a deft twist, Costa-Gavras allows his American audience to distance their country and themselves from the bloody doings in Santiago. After all, Nixon was pitched out of office. But he leaves us with the question, do we really put people like this in jail? Or do we give them high civil service rankings and unleash them on the world?
This is the contentious thesis of Missing: that the United States government organized, coordinated, and participated in the dreadful events which lead to the murder of an innocent and idealistic young man. He was not a communist but a journalist, a man of compassion and charm, who knew too much. Though Missing claims to be a true story, it is open to question on the main point, which is not the fate of Charles Horman but U.S. responsibility for the coup. (A United States court dismissed the charges of murder pressed by Mr. Horman.) Grant that all the details of the film are true, that Santiago was as the film depicts it, and that many innocent people were murdered. The film's profound dishonesty-and rhetorical power-consists in its determined focus on the individual story of the Horman family. Its political thesis is not proved directly on the broad horizon of the Chilean national tragedy. We are compelled to look at events in that country from the individual point of view. That Charles Horman was brutally murdered does not prove that the United States government murdered him-and thousands like him-in order to protect the interest of U.S. corporations in Chile.
For Costa-Gavras's rhetoric to be effective, he must suppress the broader political horizon. The hero of the film worked with other young Americans and Chileans for a newspaper called fin. We never see a copy of this newspaper. Sissy Spacek tells us it was not leftist, and that all her husband did was translate articles from "such bastions of U.S. communism as the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal." So that newspaper was a Spanish language publication. Its name therefore was not the English sounding fin but the Spanish Fin (feen. 1. End, close, termination, conclusion, 3. Object or purpose, 4. Goal, the end to which a design tends. New Revised Velazquez Spanish and English Dictionary, 1967.) Conceivably fin was a Spanish acronym, F.I.N. We can only guess what such a name might mean. Or maybe it was a newspaper publishing Wall Street Journal articles in Spanish with the English word fin as its title. We never see the newspaper's offices: perhaps it was an underground newspaper. We are allowed to see three of the apartments where the Hormans and their friends lived, but none of them show signs that a newspaper of even the most modest proportions was being published there. Instead, the Horman apartment is covered with illustrations for a children's book Charlie was working on when he was killed.
Carlos, one of Charles Horman's colleagues on the mysterious newspaper fin, or FIN, or F.I.N., for which he translated Wall Street Journal articles into Spanish, says to Ed Horman that Charlie was not political. Carlos's wife adds that many of their Chilean friends had even wondered if the Hormans were not C.I.A., because "Charlie was always asking questions." In this scene, Carlos and his wife are showing Jack and Sissy a home movie (in color, with sound) of a party they all attended just before Charlie disappeared. Charlie engages in a comic dialogue with another young American newspaperman, Frank Terruchi, on the "goals of our revolution." Everything is light and politically ambiguous. Costa-Gavras never tells us what this group of American college kids was doing working on a newspaper in Santiago, Chile; he never tells us what kind of newspaper it was; he never tells us what the politics were of the Chileans who worked with them. He only shows us that they made jokes about stupid campesinos who could not understand the goal of "our revolution" (fin de nuestra revolution).
In this Costa-Gavras is dishonest. He never mentions the government of Salvador Allende, which was overthrown in the coup his film depicts. He never hints at the extraordinary circumstances which brought Allende to the Chilean presidency with only some thirty percent of the vote. He certainly never mentions Fidel Castro's state visit to Allende's Chile, or the tumultuous reception the Allendistas gave him, or the warning he gave to them that they could never make their revolution succeed by observing the forms of bourgeoise democracy. It is significant that the film begins on the day of the coup, and that it shows us the undoubtedly brutal aspects of the social war which followed. But these events, like the lives of the Hormans, occur in a political and historical vacuum.
There is a name for such efforts, and it is not a nice one.