Sunday, 12 February 2012
Missing (1982) dir. Costa-Gavras
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Jack Lemmon, John Shea, Melanie Mayron
By Alan Bacchus
Quick, name the Palm D’Or winner from 1982… You’re right, it’s Missing, Costa-Gavras’ American-made political drama. It also nabbed Lemmon a Best Actor trophy at Cannes and three of the major Oscar nominations that year – Best Actor, Actress and Picture. Until its Criterion Collection coronation on DVD a couple of years ago, it was a classic ‘missing’ from DVD shelves for years.
Unfortunately, the integrity of the film and its political message trumps its entertainment aspects. While there’s a passionate desire for truth, a slow pace and truncated narrative structure make it more an admirable venture then great cinema.
Before Oliver Stone, Costa-Gavras was perhaps cinema’s best known and most experienced political dramatist. Unlike Stone, Costa-Gavras is not so much a provocateur as a truth seeker. In Z with uninhibited anger he dramatizes the unjust murder and cover-up of a disguised version of assassinated Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis.
In Missing, like Z, we never know the location of the story, but subtle clues tell us it’s Chile and an indictment of Augusto Pinochet’s military junta rule. John Shea and Sissy Spacek play Charles and Beth Horman, newlyweds who have chosen to live in the unnamed volatile South American country to get closer to the political pulse of this hot button region. One day the military presence is suddenly heightened and before they realize it the government has been taken over in a military coup. And then out of the blue Charles disappears – snatched from his home in the middle of the night.
Enter Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon), Charles’ father, who arrives in town on a mission for answers and to ensure a forthright investigation by the American consulate. When the Americans present a standoffish front, Ed takes it upon himself to lead the investigation. And so Beth and Ed become an unlikely team – Beth, the young leftist radical, and Ed, the elderly conservative father. Together they uncover clear American culpability in Horman’s disappearance as a pawn of appeasement for their participation in the coup.
Despite the political procedural details, Missing is at heart a picture about the two people who get to know each other amidst the cloud (or fog) of war. As a showcase for Lemmon Missing is a triumph, as the film is so heavily weighted to his performance. Costa-Gavras even delays this satisfaction until the second act after a lengthy and tedious opening act before Horman disappears and Lemmon enters the picture.
From then on Jack Lemmon owns the film.
His performance, like a couple of his other great late-career serious roles (The China Syndrome and Glengarry Glen Ross) is magnetic and electrifying. His glances and small mannerisms are the stuff of acting royalty. I can think of only a handful of actors with this kind of presence and power.
The actual narrative details, the movements from A to B to C and the political revelations aren’t as profound as they may have been in 1982. American participation in military coups is not even contested anymore – they are an accepted fact of their Machiavellian roles in world politics. And so the film leads to where we expect it to go, thus reducing its controversial power.
But Missing is still a film to be rediscovered merely for the presence of Jack Lemmon, one of the greatest actors ever, in an amazing Brando-worthy performance that is rarely seen and discussed today.