HOLLYWOOD HAS LONG suffered a reputation as a political weathervane, willing to react only to the winds of popular public sentiment, and avoiding controversy at any cost. Traditionally, the small-time movie-makers with low budgets and little to lose have tackled hot political issues, while the major studios have ` to the tastes of their audiences. It seems refreshing, therefore, when a major Hollywood studio does come up with a movie that dares to ask some questions. Missing is such a movie. And with a bold advertising campaign, a pair of big name stars and vast nationwide distribution behind it, Missing may well prove one of the most important political films in a long time.
True, this movie is no documentary; director Costa-Gavras has abandoned the rough, detached, street observer approach of his earlier "Z" in favor of personalized portraits of his characters and highly-polished production Yet while the State Department has issued a formal statement condemning the premise behind the movie, no one has yet tried to challenge it in court. The story is based upon the disappearance of a young American writer. Charlie Horman '64, who was living in Chile when the Allende government was over-thrown in 1973 Immediately following the revolution, Horman's father (Jack Lemmon '47) travels to Chile and, with Sissy Spacek, who plays Charlie Horman's wife, searches for his missing son.
The two intertwining themes in the movie center around the search for Charlie Horman and the relationship between the stuffy, Christian Scientists Lemmon, and the freewheeling, impertinent Spacek. A devout, almost chauvinistic patriot when he first comes to Chile, spouting idioms attesting to the greatness of the American Way, Lemmon slowly hardens to the cold reality of the American Way abroad, as he learns that the U.S. government may have been responsible for not only the revolution itself, but for his own son's death as well
AND IT IS THIS idea that our own government may have authorized the death of Charlie Horman that gnaws at us as an American audience, that we cannot believe. The indiscriminate torturing and killing of hundreds of Chilean civilians in the movie repulses us, but somehow we remain outside, protected from the terror and pain But the killing of an American truly outrages us. What happened to that invisible forcefield of protection that is supposed to surround an American everywhere he goes? Lemmon wonders. And we wonder, too Yet it is only through the death of the young American that our repulsion grows as we watch the movie to include all the deaths, American and Chilean
It seems ironic though not surprising that the death of one of our own is required to raise our conscience to the outrages inflicted upon others White American has traditionally responded in this manner Many more Blacks than whites died in the Southern civil rights movement during the '60s, for example, yet it was the deaths of white protest marchers, the Goodmans and Schwerners, that opened the eyes of middle class America to the atrocities going on down South The same holds true in Vietnam One wonders whether we as a nation would ever have known, or even bothered to find out, what our government was up to in Southeast Asia if our own sons had not been used as cannon fodder Perhaps the same will hold true for the present day crises in which the government seems determined to embroil us
BUT WHILE COSTA GAVRAS condemns the U.S. government for its role in the Chilean revolution he refuses to place the blame solely on the shoulders of the government officials Toward the end of the movie, when it becomes increasingly apparent that Charlie Horman has been shot, Gavras gives these slippery bureaucratic types we have grown to hate their say The U S ambassador to Chile explains to Lemmon that whatever the American government has done in Chile "has been done to protect the American way of life at home" Another official chimes in "and a very good way of life it is," and Lemmon cannot argue, because those words echo the very ones he had spoken to Spacek at the beginning of the movie. And though the idea that the United States protects its democratic Good Life at home with tyranny abroad angers us, can any middle class American deny that he or she reaps the benefits of such tyranny? It is a question that must be answered, and Costa-Gavras is unwilling to allow the upper-middle-class liberal to walk away from Missing shaking his head and saying the government screwed up again.
When Lemmon, on his way back to the United States at the end of the movie, warns the U S officials in Chile, "I just thank God we still live in a country where people like you can still be put in jail," we detect more than a note of irony. And we wonder what it is that protects our precious rights, that puts gasoline in our tanks and food in our cupboards. To what extent do things that make our lives pleasant rely upon making others 'lives unpleasant? It is a question that we all, liberal and conservative alike, must answer