Saturday, December 20, 2008

Target #250: Missing (1982, Costa-Gavras)

TSPDT placing: #841
Directed by: Costa-Gavras
Written by: Thomas Hauser (book), Costa-Gavras (writer), Donald Stewart (writer), John Nichols (uncredited)

Of all the frustrating story devices, red tape is among the worst of them. You can't see it, but Missing (1982) is absolutely swathed in red tape, invisible twines of lies and empty promises that may keep you momentarily satisfied, but ultimately get you nowhere. Costa-Gavras' 1982 political drama is based on a true story, and so, as in real life, there are no easy answers. Exactly how and why did Charles Horman die? Were United States officials somehow responsible for his death? Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) wanders dutifully from hospital to hospital, to every prison and asylum centre, in search of his missing son, gradually becoming disenchanted with the government bureaucrats in whom he'd placed his trust and hope. If the film's conclusion feels somewhat unsatisfying, then Costa-Gavras has succeeded in communicating Horman's confusion, anger and exasperation at the immobility of the political machine. Just as the missing man's father and wife were left without closure, so, too, are we. There can be no resolution as long as governments are set upon protecting their own interests.
Jack Lemmon was no stranger to frustrating film experiences. The Out-of-Towners (1970) is among the most exasperating movies you'll ever see, for its demonstrates a perfect (comedic) incarnation of Murphy's Law, in which nothing goes right, and there's nobody you can blame for it. Missing notably differs in that Costa-Gavras singles out a target for our frustration – the country's self-serving officials and corrupt military officers– and so our annoyance swiftly turns to anger. Lemmon gives one of his finest dramatic performances as as Ed Horman, continually haunted by the incomprehensible disappearance of a son he could never understand. Sissy Spacek isn't quite as strong, but her Beth Horman – the missing man's young wife – is quiet and vulnerable, a woman of fierce convictions that she's too small to carry out. Any filmmaker should utilise a soundtrack by Greek composer Vangelis with caution, for nothing screams "1980s" quite so loudly. However, it isn't all bad news for Missing, as the electronic musical score does actually add a sad, nostalgic element of surrealism to the scenes of violence and bloodshed.

I liked how Costa-Gavras cut directly to flashbacks without exposition or explanation, leaving the viewer disorientated, and wondering if we are, indeed, watching the past or the present. This technique recreates the confusion of the characters involved, and emphasises that our narrator is not omnipotent, but merely, like Ed, trying to piece together the facts as best as he can. The scenes of military violence, with the contribution of Vangelis' soundtrack, are oddly and eerily surreal – particularly the striking image of a galloping white stallion being pursued by a volley of bullets. The visitors to Santiago (though the name Chile is never uttered) are all strangely sedate in response to the images of bloodshed, their schedules unfazed by the nearby murder of local citizens, as though their status as "Americans" somehow places them above all this. At the film's end, Ed Horman dejectedly states "I just thank God we live in a country where we can still put people like you in jail." There's a deliberate hollowness behind these words; as we've just seen, America's policies aren't quite as righteous as they'd have us believe.

Currently my #4 film of 1982:
1) Blade Runner (Ridley Scott)
2) Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner)
3) First Blood (Ted Kotcheff)
4) Missing (Costa-Gavras)
5) The Verdict (Sidney Lumet)

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