Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Review #1,352: 'Missing' (1982)

The Hollywood debut of Greek director Costa-Gavras caused quite a stir when it was released in 1982. Based on a true story, Missing is a damning condemnation of U.S. foreign policy, criticising their efforts to locate missing American citizen Charles Horman (John Shea) when he goes missing in 1973 Chile, as well as suggesting their direct involvement. The country had just experienced a military coup, and the new leaders have declared martial law, placing a curfew on the population under threat of death. The sound of machine-gun fire is commonplace, as are military raids on homes and the disappearance of thousands of citizens. Worst of all, bodies litter the streets, watched over by dead-eyed soldiers who seem to do as they please. Charles, a left-wing writer, has simply vanished, sucked up into a system of brutality. And nobody seems eager to find him.

We're with Charles for a long period before his disappearance, and Costa-Gavras keeps us just as much in the dark as his wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) and father Ed (Jack Lemmon), the latter arriving frustrated with the little progress his daughter-in-law has made. Their ideologies clash almost immediately. Beth is very much on board with her husband's politics, while Ed is a devout Christian scientist with complete trust in his country's Embassy's desire to locate a fellow citizen. The performances are genuine and heartfelt. The characters themselves are recognisable and relatable in an otherwise terrifyingly alien, oppressive world, which serves as a wake-up call to Ed, who would otherwise be eating breakfast at home oblivious to the plight of Chile's people. The most powerful moments of Missing involve Ed battling his way through waves of bureaucracy and the empty promises of diplomats.

Costa-Gavras manages to build an atmosphere of relentless tension in a place where failing to find yourself a taxi to make it home in time for the curfew could see you dragged away for execution. Yet this is built around Ed and Beth's difficult relationship, and the film emerges and ultimately triumphs as a thoroughly engaging character study rather than a political thriller. Tiny, throwaway moments hammer their struggle and mental anguish home, particularly a moment where Ed descends a set of stairs and, without realising it, starts to ascend the one opposite. It takes a moment before he realises, shakes his head, and turns around, and you really feel for the guy. Costa-Gavras deliberately infuses Missing with a sense of timelessness, failing to confirm the story's year and location, introducing the idea that this could be happening anywhere, at any time. Coups and dictators come and go, and the people suffer for it. Those who choose to ignore it may eventually become the cause.

Directed by: Costa-Gavras
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Melanie Mayron, Charles Cioffi
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Missing (1982) on IMDb

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