Putting Jack Lemmon in Missing was a smart move that make it more powerful for middle America. The initial choice was Paul Newman, an obvious choice but one that would have brought some political baggage with it. Lemmon didn’t wear his politics on his sleeve, and was best known for his comic work despite having some serious work most notably his Oscar winning turn in Save The Tiger. It brought the film to a wider audience, did reasonably well, and brought a certain kind of political filmmaking to a US audience. The influence of Missing is easy to see on Salvador, for example.
Missing was Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras’s first and best American film. He can be seen as the father of the “docu-drama,” with films like Z, State of Siege and The Confession. He has been nominated for the Oscar several times and once he won for Z, it was a natural point to make a Hollywood film.
Missing concerns “the original 9/11,” the US-abetted coup in Chile on 11 September 1973. It’s mostly about the aftermath and the disappearance of American journalist Charles Horman, whose father (Lemmon) comes to Chile to find him. Horman soon realises that his government has lied to him, and his long-held beliefs about the US begin to crumble around him. This moral dilemma is what makes it a great movie, because it takes the audience along with the lead character.
Sissy Spacek plays the missing journalist’s wife, turning in a great performance even though Lemmon is at the centre of the piece. Both Lemmon and Spacek received Oscar nominations, as did the screenplay. While only the screenplay won the Oscar, it did grab both Palme d’Or and Best Actor for Lemmon at Cannes.
As films based on a true story go, it’s one that is closer to the real-life material than many others as well as being emotionally affecting. One reason it didn’t do as well in the US as it should have was the obvious parallels to what was happening in El Salvador at the time. It was out of circulation for awhile (as well as being banned in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship, which was still in place when it was released), and rattled the US government so much that the then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig was compelled to issue a public denial of the events portrayed—which are now known to have been accurate.
Universal wanted the film to open with a title card that placed it specifically in Chile and 1973, but Costa-Gavras resisted as he wanted to play up the parallels to what the US was then doing in El Salvador and elsewhere.
Missing is one of the last 1970s-style American conspiracy movies, a genre that was heavily influenced by Costa-Gavras’s European work. It shares a look and feel with earlier political thrillers like The Parallax View and All the President’s Men. Many have tried to replicate the genre over the years since but only a handful have been able to pull it off with Oliver Stone’s JFK being the best.
The disk includes archival interviews with Costa-Gavras from French TV, and a new appreciation by the very underrated director Keith Gordon, who made the film adaptation of Vonnegut’s Mother Night. Two audio interviews from The Guardian with Lemmon and Costa-Gavras can be used as an alternative commentary tracks, and there is another 30-minute video interview with Costa-Gavras. An interview with Joyce Horman, the real-life journalist’s wife, presents her personal experience and her thoughts on the film. The package is rounded off with the trailer, an image gallery, and a 40-page booklet with new and old writing about the film, interviews and a collection of critical responses.