Costa-Gavras’ Missing is in the same vein as his brilliant film Z. Instead of the leadup to the military coup in Greece that Z covers, Missing takes place in the immediate aftermath of the military coup in Chile, leading to the brutal dictator Pinochet‘s reign. Both films are about an unjust political murder, and both films make the political personal by focusing on the emotions of the characters.
It can be a fault of political films and stories where they’re more about the mechanics; even stories about the wholesale slaughter of innocents can err on the side of sheer numbers, paradoxically separating the audience from the problem. While we know that the murder, of, say, 20,000 people is a great injustice — people, myself included, tend to think of it as “a shame” rather than an appalling immoral situation. The human condition makes it difficult to have a deep connection if the individual isn’t affected.
Gavras understands this — and the way he handles this in his films is very adept. Missing is about the murder of
Charles Horman, an American freelance journalist, writer and artist because he stumbled across the US’ involvement in propping up the military coup against Allende. The film follows Horman’s wife and father as they attempt to find him; the US government insists that he’s still alive, and in hiding; they begin to believe that isn’t true. One of the biggest punches in the film is when they go to the morgue. The official leads them through two full rooms of corpses splayed all over the floor casually saying that these bodies had been identified — and takes them to a third room with even more victims, the unidentified. They don’t find Horman, but they do find a friend of his — a friend who’d been reported by the US and Chilean governments to have been sent, alive and well back to Chicago. As they cry, shocked, the camera tilts up and displays the stairwell with even more bodies to the clear floor above with more anonymous bodies splayed out in silhouette. It’s a shocking visual, but one that hammers home the fact that each and every one of these bodies has people who knew and care about them as well — not just the main characters of the film, not just the people we know personally and care about.
They finally find the truth about Charles Horman — that he was one of the many murdered at the National Stadium, and why: A Naval Engineer chats him up in a hotel and tells him, without any prodding how the US was involved with the coup — thereby making it so Horman “knew too much” and “had” to be killed. As the US Consul finally owns up to it, they blame him for “snooping”, but say they’ll send his body back home to New York by the end of that week… but, it’ll cost them almost one thousand dollars. (Shades of Brazil — and the middle ages — where they’d charge the victim for torture, or their families if they died.) Of course, the body doesn’t make it home for another six months, by which it’s too late for any evidence to be gathered from it to help in the court case Horman’s family brought against the US Government.
I’m not sure which is a better film — Z or Missing — but Missing is more of an emotional and political gut-punch. While Z‘s anonymous location shows that this sort of thing can happen anywhere, the fact that the US was explicitly involved in Missing underlines that it can happen HERE. And though it’s true, it’s not a terribly comforting thought.