Greek director Constantin Costa-Gavras makes films that are generally referred to as "political thrillers," but that may be something of a misnomer. His pictures, including his 1969 award-winning Z, and 1987's Betrayed, often focus on individuals battling against uncaring, hostile, governments and are, indeed, intensely political.
But are they thrilling? Does the audience sit on the edge of its collective seat, feeling as if they may jump out of their own skin at any moment? Probably not. But the movies certainly sell Costa-Gavras's fear-the-government message with authority.
Just released by the Criterion Collection, his 1982 American-made picture, Missing, winner of the Palme d'Or and Best Actor awards at Cannes (and the recipient of four Oscar nominations), is perhaps the director's best-known work. And it is, indeed, very political. Based on Thomas Hauser's book The Execution of Charles Horman, An American Sacrifice, it portrays Horman (John Shea) as a good-natured, politically active, genial lefty who's made a home with his wife, Beth (Sissy Spacek) in an unspecified Latin American country. Well, unspecified, but we still know that it's Chile, on the eve of the 1973 coup deposing General Pinochet.
As a witness to the events happening around him, Horman -- a filmmaker and journalist -- takes copious notes. When he disappears, Beth attempts to find him, getting the cold shoulder from U.S. officials. With help from her conservative, disapproving father-in-law, Ed (Jack Lemmon), she desperately tries to find out what happened to her husband, and while she never gets any concrete answers, we can put two-and-two together and figure it out.
Missing is an unapologetic left-wing polemic, less interested in finding out Horman's true fate than in showing the U.S. government to be a soulless machine more concerned with the interests of businesses than individuals. To that end, Costa-Gavras cannily allows Lemmon to play the role of Mr. Right-Winger, who hates his son's life choices, doesn't understand why he would live outside the U.S., and seemingly blames him at first for whatever's befallen him. Ed's evolution from bitter stereotype to a man baffled by the betrayal of his beloved country is like a liberal fairytale, but Lemmon and Spacek are so good at playing the evolution of their characters' gradual respect and affection for each other that it imbues Missing with a much-needed element of real humanity.
Denounced by Reagan's administration at the time of its release, Missing offers a lot of expertly manipulated emotional chills, and will doubtless re-ignite outrage in liberal viewers. In 1982, this was a breakthrough, important film -- today, it's difficult to view Costa-Gavras's morality play about big, evil American government without thinking, So tell me something I didn't know.
The Criterion Collection's two-disc DVD release offers an excellent anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer from a fairly grainy, often soft master print. The audio, in Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural, is fine, but for ears used to surround sound, it may come off a tad flat.
Extras, most which are on disc two, include a 17-minute featurette, "Producing Missing," on getting the film from book to screen. Also here is an interview, circa 1982, with Lemmon, Costa-Gavras, and Ed and Joyce Harmon (her name was changed to "Beth" in the movie). "Pursuing Truth" is an an interview with author Peter Kornbluh on developments in Horman's case since the film. Plus we get video clips from the 2002 Charles Horman Truth Project Awards Night; two interviews with director Costa-Gavras, in which he discusses the entire process of making the film in depth; and a new interview with Joyce Horman.
The package includes a 36-page booklet with essays by Michael Wood, Terry Simon (Horman's friend, portrayed in the film by Melanie Mayron), an interview with the director by Gary Crowdus, and the U.S. State Department's official response to the film.
Dawn Taylor is now officially full up on angry political material for awhile.