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

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

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.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .