(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.