Skip to main content

I don’t want to hear any of your anti-establishment paranoia.

Missing
(1982)

(SPOILERS) After seeing The Verdict a couple of months ago, and musing that it might be my personal choice for the Best Picture Oscar out of the 1982 nominees, I thought it might be interesting to revisit the lot. One of which, Missing, I hadn’t seen before. I was aware of the regard in which it was held, of course, as a feature of genuine political content that even elicited angry denials from the US State Department over its allegations of US involvement in the 1973 Chilean coup that saw General Pinochet topple the (democratically-elected, but socialist, so fair game) President Allende – I mean, as if they would do such a thing, especially in such an underhanded manner. It would be unheard of. This is the kind of material I’d usually be itching to check out. Perhaps it was the Jack Lemmon factor that put me off, for, while I wouldn’t join Pauline Kael in her evisceration of the picture, I do rather have to side with her on the shortcomings of its lead actor.


Kael came out with some rather ungainly remarks in her review, such as her conviction that Costa-Gavras hates Americans –because he dared criticised the country’s proclivities – and her self-appointed defence of the US Government, giving them the benefit of the doubt over involvement in the coup. But I can’t fault her on a couple of key charges.


One is that director-co-writer Costa-Gavras (with Donald E Stewart, who had his fingerprints on the first three Jack Ryan adaptations) makes rather a leaden job of charting Edmund Horman’s (Lemmon’s father character, searching for his missing son) political awakening. He is indeed a frequently groan-worthy, stock conservative, disapproving of his lefty son’s lifestyle and leanings, one who keeps his head down, believes his country knows best and asks no questions until the painful truths strike so close to home he can no longer ignore them. He’s too polarised to be true.


But, while there’s nothing so unsubtle there that a sock full of lead piping couldn’t counteract, it does feed into Kael’s chief charge, namely that Lemmon’s the wrong guy for the job; he merely accentuates every caricature element of Horman, leaving him cast adrift in a completely different movie to the rest of the players. She labelled Lemmon one of those actors who are lightweights, gifted comedians “who get soggy when they try to fill the screen in heavyweight, tragicomic roles”, and when they’re in realistic roles “they’re busy being realistic”. Which couldn’t sum up Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross better. It also readily identifies the problem I always had with Robin Williams in straight dramatic roles (her comment that Lemmon putting his finger under his collar and twisting his neck “puts me in mourning for the lost evening” is both hilariously cruel and horribly accurate).


Missing would have been much better suited to an actor less consciously performing Horman’s clichéd type, particularly as Lemon is paired with Sissy Spacek (as Beth, Charlie’s wife) for much of the proceedings. She’s outstanding, and entirely naturalistic, be she terrified and trying to avoid patrols after curfew or responding caustically and jadedly to every new fob-off the US Embassy offers over her husband’s whereabouts and their attested search for him. She can’t quite pull off telling dad-in-law all about The Little Prince, but that’s because Costa-Gavras deals in sometimes unwieldy extremes, be they emotional or environmental.


Indeed, he creates a palpably oppressive, dangerous siege state of lawlessness and imminent violence, so potent it underlines the shame of Lemmon blundering around detracting from things. John Shea, a little like Michael Ontkean in looks, is decent as the doomed firebrand, and there are several strong showings on the fringes, including David Clennon (perhaps most memorably, he played Palmer in the same year’s The Thing) as the oily, deceitful consul contact and Jerry Hardin (Deep Throat in The X-Files) as a far from tongue-tied Colonel. Richard Venture plays the US Ambassador, a role over which Nathaniel Davis, the real Ambassador at the time, unsuccessfully sued.


Sometimes a film’s political or social design can swallow up all and any legitimate artistic criticisms in the tidal wave of what it stands for. Missing won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, which alarmingly also bestowed Best Actor on Jack Lemmon (and gave him a decade’s worth of conversation topics; just check out his interviews with Parky, holding forth on the thespian’s art). Oscar trailed in its wake, with four nominations (Best Picture, Lemmon, Spacek and Screenplay).


As such, Missing’s Oscar recognition was simply a consequence of the statement it was making, a show of solidarity for a film making the establishment sit up and take notice, and I can get behind that, but I don’t think its screenplay is really all that. It’s didactic, repetitive and leads by the nose, which might have worked if Oliver Stone had provided an apoplectic rewrite (his Salvador a few years later is a far more engaged and incensed attack on shameful US meddling in the affairs of the non-US Americas). With Costa-Gavras’ style, cooler and more low-key, the disconnects tend to stand out.


Missing’s claims authenticity and legitimacy through being based on a true story, that of Charles Horman’s stumbling across proof of US collusion in the coup and being topped for his troubles (the movie refers to the body eventually being returned to the US, for which Ed is given the bill; years later, post-DNA testing, it was revealed it wasn’t in fact Horman’s). In 1999, the State Department declassified a previously redacted 1976 memo suggesting the CIA might have at best motivated the Chilean government to murder Horman, and at worst was directly involved in his death. Missing doesn’t actually say it is set in Chile (where it was banned for the duration of the Pinochet regime), although it mentions Santiago; the picture was filmed in Mexico.


Most of Missing’s best notes – Spacek aside – are surface ones, though; the lure of the conspiratorial, immersive mis en scène, a post-Chariots Vangelis score (which manages to add to the unsettling aspect for the most part too, offering discordant accompaniment, at least when his melodic love theme isn’t in full surge). Unlike, say Peter Weir’s Year of Living Dangerously, Costa-Gavras appears to presume the mere fact of his tale’s veracity will do the heavy lifting, which leads to good intentions giving way to a sense of predictability; there isn’t really much meat to his lost sandwich, and certain incidents (Beth retrieving Charlie’s diary) seem to be slotted in at far too late a moment to make narrative sense. By the time we reach the last half hour, the picture is running on fumes. 


If Costa-Gavras had overseen two really powerful lead performances, instead of just one, the flaws might have been better disguised, but Missing is left as a strong subject in search of a strong movie. Which never stopped Best Picture nominees before, but in 1982 it was simply the most venerated one that took the statuette.





Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.