It might be 40 years late, but I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 1982 through the month of July
Featuring a dynamic duo of Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, Costa-Garvas’ Missing turns what could have been a boring story into a searing portrait of American imperialism and the toll it takes on regular people.
Charlie Horman (John Shea) lives with his wife Beth (Spacek) in Chile. Despite holding a series of odd jobs, the pair enjoy their life. Following a military coup, Charlie disappears from their house and no one knows where he is. Charlies father Ed (Lemmon) utilizes his vast political connections to attempt to locate Charlie.
Ed arrives in Chile to enquire about Charlie in person. While Ed and Beth have a strained relationship due to political differences, the pair are eager to discover Charlie’s whereabouts. With the help of friends, journalists, and defecting generals, the pair come together to uncover the truth.
American exceptionalism and imperialism is at the core of what the film wants to explore. At every turn, Ed and Beth are lied to or misled by American representatives who attempt to deflect their concerns about their lost son/husband. The buracuracy as a whole is painted as more important than that of one American human. One character eventually comes out and says the quiet part out loud.
The relationship between Ed and Beth begins as not only as a cavernous difference in political ideals, but in generations as well. Ed’s generation is founded around the righteousness of World War II. Beth’s generation is founded in the deception of Vietnam. Beth has grown cynical of the world and its political machinations, while Ed attempts to work in concert with those forces. Eventually, both sides come to a mutual understanding that the world is stuck in the gray area.
Lemmon is nothing short of remarkable. The actor has this one-of-a-kind ability to shift from scene to scene while still grasping the same character. One minute, he’s a fed-up father, the next he is achingly sincere in speaking of his child. Minutes later, he commands the room without booming his voice. It is the entire spectrum of what Lemmon did best throughout his career. It is such a complete performance that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.
Spacek has a different role, but rises to the occasion when the scene calls for it. Ed is an outsider who thinks he can get things done his way, but Beth knows the reality of the situation. When Ed is fed a line, Beth understands the reality of what the line means. She has the benefit of experience and has absolutely no time to suffer fools. Her warmth towards Charlie, and eventually Ed, gives the film a much needed boost of sweetness.
The rest of the cast is meant to blend in to the background, but they all have their little moments. The US diplomats are superbly bland and nice without being kind. David Clennon is especially smarmy as a seemingly helpful counsel. Shea gets plenty of screentime in flashbacks, but his characterization is intentionally minute. Why would someone like this be a target of a militarized government? He still performs well with what he is given.
Gavras smartly depicts the chaotic country with a journalistic neutrality. You don’t need to make a political statement when a group of armed soldiers are chasing down a horse in the middle of a city. This restraint lets your imagination do the work of the true atrocities occurring outside of the frame.
There is still plenty of carnage to behold without sinking into exploitation. All the death and gunfire is played for atmosphere and not for cheap thrills or gore. There exists a constant tension that everything will go haywire.
Missing may be Lemmon’s best performance while also shedding light on the banality of evil inherent in the American military machine. Another film may still unseat it, but it is currently my favorite film of the year.
Next week: I’ve never seen one of the most popular movies of all-time: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
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