Reign of the right wing: Costa-Gavras’ Missing


Missing is a 1982 film by Constantin Costa-Gavras (Z, 1969, State of Siege, 1972). All three films are factually based, and present the US role in support of terrorist right wing regimes in, respectively, Chile, Greece and Uruguay.

As a result of the declassification of secret documents authorised by President Clinton this role is now documented comprehensively. Men such as J.D. Rockefeller II and his sons, Henry Kissinger, Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and Bush (snr) and their administrations and organisations such as the CIA have been shown to have had strong affiliations with the Nazi Party in Germany, ex-Nazis in South America, the Mafia, and several drug cartels. These unholy alliances were apparently undertaken by the US government to combat the threat of Communism during the cold war. With the disintegration of the Communist USSR, it is disquieting to see the present administration in the US taking up the same alliances against a new threat, Islam. It’s obviously good for business. Co-incidentally, these alliances offered side benefits: massive profits for US corporations because of unstable economies in South American countries, huge personal fortunes raised by participation in the munitions and drugs trades, a rise in prestige and power of the military establishment, and the bolstering of political popularity by regimes who carried out little positive legislation for their nation. These operations (I am not referring to specific instances, but generalising) were taken for security reasons. Hindsight has proven them to be wrong. But those who will not learn from their mistakes are sentenced to repeat them.

However it is not necessary to enter into the details of this background to understand or appreciate this film. To follow the plot, you need to know only that the socialist government of Allende was seen as a new hope for Chile, and attracted idealists from other countries wanting to participate in its social program; that these social changes were undermined by a worldwide inflation in the early 1970s which gave an opportunity for the right wing military opponents of Allende to take control of the country (they had suffered a massive electoral defeat); that the US government was committed to overthrow the socialist regime in Chile and poured 11 million US dollars into the effort, as well as misrepresenting the situation to their electorate and the rest of the world; and that the dictatorship of General Pinochet resulted in 3,000 murders of alleged socialists and the imprisonment and torture of 28,000 more, with US government connivance.

This is what is going on in the background of the film. If it was what the film was about, however, it would be a horrifying diatribe we would be reluctant to listen to or watch.

The film instead is constructed around the amazing acting talents of Jack Lemmon, and he makes the film an overwhelming experience by giving one of his greatest performances. Based on a book called The Execution of Charles Horman, Costa-Gavros’ script focuses on the search of Charles Horman’s father, Ed (Lemmon) and Charles’ wife Beth (Spacek) for the missing writer. The night time sets, with curfew in force, searchlights and helicoptors prowling, and frequent bursts of staccato machine gun fire, create a nightmare, desperate world familiar to all those who have seen Blade Runner.

Throughout the film we are presented with the moral choice various characters make: how far will you go in support of what you believe in? If you believe socialism is ruining the country would you torture and murder socialists? If you think a new order will bring benefit to millions, would you risk your life and spend 17 hours a day bringing out a left wing newspaper? If you think it better that millions suffer to safeguard your own way of life, would you turn a blind eye to terrorism? If you love your son, would you attack your consulate officials for non co-operation in searching for him, and sue your government for complicity in crimes against humanity after his death?(and if you think communism is a totalitarian regime that curbs democratic rights, would you engage in totalitarian means to combat it?)

Because these questions are raised in this political context, it is important to distinguish fact from fiction. The facts presented are accurate, but they serve a dramatic, not documentary, end. The film is both a story of a search for a missing person, with artfully rising suspense and a powerful climax, and a study in relationships, chiefly between father and son, and father and daughter-in-law. Ed Horman only discovers his son after he goes missing, that is his tragedy. He has spent his life not seeing a lot of what he should have seen. His story thus echoes the political point that Costa-Gavras wants to make. It is our political right to be aware of the world we live in; failing that, we inherit a world we don’t like at all. Further, there is a hint in the blossoming relationship between Beth and Ed that ideologies are for people, that people are not for ideologies. That no matter what you believe, you should commit to it, and that commitment should never, never, affect your ability to relate to other people in a positive, enhancing way.

Those interested in the topic of this film might also like The Official Story (Luis Puenzo, 1985), concerning General Videla’s reign of terror in Argentina. Videla came to power three years after General Pinochet, in 1976, with massive support from President Reagan and his administration, who supplied funds, arms and training for his forces. Over 30,000 people perished, murdered, tortured, exiled or ‘disappeared’ during Videla’s dictatorship. Again the motive was anti-communism: arms from the US, training from ex members of the Nazi party and funds from a mafia organised drug cartel (which was able to set up a profitable business in the country with, ultimately, disastrous results for young people in America). The Official Story stars the great Norma Aleandro, and is concerned with the profitable trade in babies carried out by Videla’s regime, whereby political prisoners who were pregnant were delivered of their babies before being executed, and the babies then sold to wealthy childless couples in the administration. Over 500 babies are thought to have been sold in this ghastly trade. The human drama of a marriage that disintegrates under the suspicion that a member of it has been involved in the baby trade is the subject of the film while the political situation forms the background. Again, the moral choices of individuals is focused on: if your wife was desperate for a child, would you supply one if it meant murdering its real mother? Is this a violation of the trust you share with your wife? The film features a stunning performance from Aleandro (an exile).

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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