It’s fascinating to look back on the original reviews for Costa-Gavras’ Missing (1982). Most gave the film high marks for drama, performances and the sheer chutzpah of daring to make a film that concludes U.S. government officials knew of and were even implicated in the murder of left-wing American journalist Charles Horman in Chile in 1973. But they were also quick to point out that the film didn’t actually prove this. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby even went so far as to raise questions of whether the contention makes sense. In 1999, declassified documents proved the validity of the film’s conclusion. Time has neatly vindicated Costa-Gavras’ film on this point.
In another sense, time has not only been kind to the film itself, but has, — unfortunately — made it relevant all over again. Though Missing is about the attempts of Horman’s wife, Beth (Sissy Spacek), and his father, Ed (Jack Lemmon), to find out what happened to him — in fact, even to determine if he’s alive or dead — it’s really about the father’s political awakening. As the film starts out, Ed Horman is a card-carrying conservative with a complete distaste for the political views of his son and daughter-in-law — and with complete faith in the truthfulness of his own government. The further he goes in uncovering the truth, the more impossible it becomes for him to hold to those beliefs.
Costa-Gavras builds this picture slowly and powerfully, wisely relying in the acting skills of his lead performers to carry the dramatic burden and make the characters human rather than simplistic types. If it falls a little short of his classic Z (1969), that’s only because Z is an almost impossible act to follow.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke