A likable young couple is walking down the street of a modern-day city in broad daylight – the streets happen to be full of martial-law soldiers, but these two friends are Americans, and even in South America you assume that represents some kind of security. The young man breaks off to go grab a newspaper and ambles across a sunlit plaza. When he turns to rejoin his friend, he – and we – shockingly discover that she is being led away by a soldier who is pointing a machine gun in her back. This scene, early in Missing, superbly captures the way director Costa-Gavras & co. have captured that sense of instability that can erupt into violence at any time.
The absolute terror of sudden, senseless death informs every moment of Missing: the not-so-distant sound of gunfire keeps punctuating even the most civilized of dialogues. The story is about the search for an American who vanishes in an unnamed South American country (though we know that it is Chile during the 1973 coup – and the events in the film are true, according to its introduction). Sissy Spacek plays the man’s wife, and Jack Lemmon plays the father; they have a rather conventional clash of attitudes and styles that deepens into a more interestingly grudging acceptance as the search continues (though I wish Lemmon hadn’t been made to actually voice his eventual admiration for Spacek – the way he looks at her with his beleaguered eyes and posture say volumes more).
Costa-Gavras puts these people on a hellish journey towards some kind of answer, and they are understandably embittered by the frustration of the apparently deliberate withholding of the answer. But at the end, Lemmon’s character utters a line – the film’s last, of dialogue – that is more defiant than bitter, but simultaneously manages to be neither mere flag-waving nor a set-up for a cruel irony. It partakes of the ambiguousness that makes much of Missing so satisfying, and so unsettling.
First published in The Informer, March 1982
It won the Palm d’or that year, and the Oscar for adapted screenplay. Vangelis did the music, including a plaintive main theme. In retrospect, the film looks like one of the last of the 1970s, when a major studio would back a politically potent movie (complete with criticism of the USofA) all the way. This review, by the way, ran in the first expanded issue of The Informer, the monthly newsletter of the Seattle Film Society; I began editing it a couple of years earlier and in March 1982 made it more of a journal-looking thing (my TV review from that issue was about the debut of Late Night with David Letterman). I’ll run some other stuff from that issue.