Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Melanie Mayron, John Shea, Charles Cioffi, David Clennon, Richard Venture, Jerry Hardin, Richard Bradford, Joe Regalbuto, Keith Szarabajka, John Doolittle, Janice Rule, Ward Costello, Hansford Rowe, Tina Romero, Martin LaSalle, Terry Nelson
Written by: Costa-Gavras, Donald Stewart, John Nichols (uncredited), based on the book by Thomas Hauser
Directed by: Costa-Gavras
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 122
Date: 02/12/1982

Missing (1982)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Lost and Profound

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Greek-born director Constantin Costa-Gavras usually signs his films with only "Costa-Gavras," as if he were creating a brand name for political thrillers. The thriller part invites audiences to have fun at the movies, while the political part makes them think they're seeing something more than "just" a thriller. Costa-Gavras first broke out in 1969 with Z, which earned him a Best Director nomination and won two other Oscars, and in 1981, he was invited to make his first American film, Missing, with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek.

Missing takes place in an unnamed country, presumably Chile, in the early 1970s, when a military coup toppled the reigning government (presumably Allende's). A happy, liberal American couple, Charlie Horman (John Shea) and his wife Beth (Spacek) live there, keeping a pet duck, drawing cartoons and occasionally translating articles for left-wing newspapers. They find life increasingly difficult under the new military rule -- with its strict curfews -- and begin to wonder if Charlie's habit of keeping notes on everything is very safe. Soon, Charlie has disappeared and his right-wing, Christian Scientist father Ed (Lemmon) flies down to help investigate. Ed can't understand his son's way of life and believes that Charlie must have created his own trouble; he can't believe that people would be arrested for no good reason. But of course, the major arc of Missing is Ed's awakening and realization that black-and-white thinking just doesn't apply to the real world.

Lemmon and Spacek are the film's highlight. During this point in her career, Spacek was a warm, pretty, earthy actress with a hint of the nerdy librarian; eventually she became "important" and started making dry, dull dramas for too many years. But here her softness and brazen, organic way of speaking perfectly clash and mesh with Lemmon's nervous, upright Ed. This was clearly a chance at glory for Lemmon, who probably wanted more from his career than to be "just" a comedian, and he clenches up his character as tight as a dried sponge. Throughout the film Ed and Beth meet with various officials; Ed responds with politeness, while Beth responds with ironic exasperation -- she's been to too many meetings and heard the same assurances too many times -- and then Ed responds to her responses. It's a winning formula, and it's too bad that there isn't more of it.

For the rest of the time, Costa-Gavras turns his camera to creating the political atmosphere. He captures lots of gunfire and jeeps and people running through the streets and burning, crumbling buildings, and this setting works well. Then, he points a finger at American officials, who may or may not have helped engineer the coup and may or may not have had something to do with Charlie's disappearance. His villains are snaky liars, but they're symbols rather than characters. (I doubt the film offended very many people.) Other times, Costa-Gavras includes misplaced flashbacks, and other ridiculous scenes, such as a mysterious "warning" from an American freelance journalist (Janice Rule), who then becomes an important character. But Vangelis' lovely, meditative score gives the movie a much-needed calm center (and it recalls his similar work on the same year's much better Blade Runner).

Overall, Missing is a jumble, with good stuff mixed in with bad. It placed on the ten best lists at the New York Times and the National Board of Review and received Oscar nominations, for Lemmon (his eighth and last), Spacek (her third of six) and for Best Picture. Costa-Gavras and co-writer Donald Stewart took home an Oscar for their adapted screenplay. Strangely, despite all these flaws, it seems more subdued and far more intelligent than most of today's political films (including Costa-Gavras' recent attempts like Mad City and Amen), which is probably why the Criterion Collection decided it warranted a grade-A DVD release. Their two-disc set comes with a remastered transfer of the film, and lots of extras, all having to do with the real-life case upon which the film is based.

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