Thursday, February 12, 2009


Missing posterMissing is a 1982 film based on the true story of American journalist Charles Horman, who disappeared in the bloody aftermath of the U.S.-backed Chilean military coup of 1973 that deposed President Salvador Allende. The film was banned in Chile during General Pinochet's regime. Both the film and the book on which it is based, Thomas Hauser's The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice, were removed from the market. Former Chilean Ambassador Nathanial Lewis and two other American officials filed a lawsuit against director Costa Gavras and Universal's parent company MCA, which they lost. After the lawsuit, the film was re-released by Universal in 1996.

The film begins with a statement by Costa Gavras that the events depicted in the film are true. It ends with a disclaimer from the U.S. State department stating that they are fictional. In the first scene, Charles 'Charlie' Horman and an American friend Terry Simon are returning from the seaside town of Viña del Mar in the car of a U.S. Navy Captain Ray Tower, whom they met there. When they get to Santiago, they are hit by the chaos and bloodshed taking place in the streets. People are being interrogated and shot indiscriminately, tanks are rolling through the main streets, soldiers stand at every few metres, bodies crumpled at every corner. Tower drops them off, and they are forced to spend the night in a hotel because of the curfew. Charlie is worried because his wife, Beth (Sissy Spacek), with whom he is living in Santiago, is at home alone and he hasn't been able to contact her. The next morning, he and Terry make it to their home and find Beth alive and well, but worried. Beth and Charlie decide to leave and go back to America in the next few days because of the danger of the situation. That night, Beth doesn't make it home from a friend's house because she is caught out past curfew, which means being shot by roaming soldiers. She hides in a corner until morning. When she gets home, she finds the house ransacked, and Charlie gone.

Thus begins the search for Charlie Horman. His father Edmund (Jack Lemmon), a New York businessman, comes to Chile to look for his son. He finds Beth desperate and frustrated with her fruitless attempts at locating Charlie in the chaos of the coup. In the beginning, he does not understand why she is frustrated; in his bewilderment, he resorts to blaming Beth and Charlie for their unstructured lifestyle in South America, their "sloppy idealism", and their rejection of the capitalist ideals which he embodies as the reason for Charlie's disappearance. But as he begins to deal with the American Embassy, he realizes that Beth's frustration is justified; the Ambassador and his men are seemingly leading Edmund and Beth on a wild-goose chase, insisting that Charlie must be in hiding and that they are doing their best to find him. Assuming that Charlie would have at least contacted either Beth or his parents if he were in hiding, Beth and Edmund begin to realize that he may be dead. But the Chileans wouldn't kill an American citizen...if he had been executed, an American government official must given consent. With this in mind, they search for Charlie everywhere, in hospitals, in morgues, in prisons, in Santiago's main stadium where all the interrogations occur and political prisoners are held, in buildings piled high with the bodies of men and women killed by soldiers. They find no trace of him.

As Beth and Edmund dig deeper, they begin to discover a terrifying and enormously significant secret. Suddenly answers begin to materialize. After talking to Terry Simon, who went to Viña with Charlie, they find out the Charlie had been talking to some U.S. officials who claimed to be Navy men and admitted to being part of the coup. In fact, the coup was planned in Viña by Chilean and American military leaders, together. Automatically considering Charlie an ally because of his nationality, the U.S. officers had divulged everything. Upon his return to Santiago, these same officers had discovered he was journalist who contributed to a leftist newspaper and translated articles for American newspapers. When they realized the danger of the information he held, they had to eliminate him. The horrible truth becomes increasingly clear, however hard Beth and Edmund try to put it from their minds. One day, an American working for the Ford Foundation contacts Edmund Horman and tells him that Charlie was executed three days after the coup, in Santiago's main stadium. Edmund is heartbroken. He storms into the American Embassy and reveals this new information. The Ambassador and his attachés deny any knowledge of this and try to convince Edmund that Charlie has left the country, but Edmund refuses to accept this and demands the truth. The Ambassador admits implicitly that in order to protect American interests and the 'American way of life', the U.S. government has had to do what is necessary. With this, it is time to leave Chile. Beth and Edmund, who have become quite dependent on each other, tie up some last loose ends with the remorseless and petty American Embassy officials and return to New York. Before they leave, Edmund Horman warns them that he will sue them, if it's the last thing he does. Charlie's body is supposed to follow his father and wife a few days later, but a voice-over in the closing scene informs the viewers that his body returned home seven months later, in a condition which made autopsy impossible. It also informs us that Edmund Horman did file a lawsuit against 11 U.S.officials, including Henry Kissinger. The evidence for the lawsuit was labelled 'Secrets of State', and so the suit was dismissed.

Although Chile is never actually named in the film, Viña del Mar and Santiago are, and so it is clear that Chile is the location of the film. And Chile is depicted as hell, as a place of unparalleled violence and bloodshed, as a place brutally and totally ruined by a ruthless quest for power. One mournful Chilean says, "The junta has destroyed in a few weeks everything that was beautiful about this country". In one scene, a beautiful white horse gallops through the burning city streets, chased by a jeep full of shooting soldiers trying to kill it; this scene is a perfect symbol of this destruction. Chile is no longer a place for men. Edmund Horman asks desperately, as gunshots ring out in the streets, "What kind of world is this?". Later he admits that this place has "torn his heart out of him". The Chilean soldiers are the ubiquitous and terrible demons in this hell, murdering innocents in the streets, cold-hearted and cruel behind their hard faces. They are true South American military villains, capable of the utmost destruction. Their victims were once ordinary Latin American citizens; they have become nameless piles of bodies. Shots and explosions punctuate every hour; in the end, they no longer surprise anyone. The Chile in the film is Hell itself.

This hell is partly created by the seemingly eternal U.S. quest for power. The Cold War rhetoric of the film centres mainly around the Ambassador's speech to Edmund Horman. "There are 3000 American firms in Chile," he says, "and we need to protect their interests. We are protecting your interests, too, Mr. Horman. We are preserving the American way of life." He goes on to remind Edmund that were it not for his son's disappearance, he would be sitting at home, oblivious of the events in Chile. The theme of American political manipulation is pervasive throughout the film, and is Gavras' main criticism. Although the Chilean military officers are those shown directly committing the acts of violence, they remain flat and numerous, while the American officials are prominent characters whose shameless lies and remorseless disregard for human life evoke the most shock and disgust from the viewers. In all the chaos and suffering, the Americans seem unruffled and slightly amused. And so Latin America is depicted as a place where the United States wants to have the ultimate power, at any cost. The United States can sink to any level, to the level of Pinochet's brutal military government. No problem, as long as American interests are protected. The cost of American manipulation is borne solely by Latin America, whose people die by the masses, whose living citizens live a life of debilitating fear, whose streets are riddled with bullet holes. The U.S. doesn't care if Latin America is completely decimated, as long as they control it.

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