The Film and Performance:
*Warning: review contains film spoilers
The 1973 Chilean coup d’état was a brutal and infamous part of the Cold War. The culmination of events occurred when Salvador Allende, an open socialist and Marxist, was elected as President in 1970. Immediately as President, Allende began the process of transforming the democratic country into the socialist nation he sought for the country to be. Private industries were transitioned to being nationalized and agricultural sales were shifted to being collective. These economic decisions were criticized with many deeming them as “unconstitutional.” These governmental tensions soon escalated into the 1973 Chilean coup d’état led by General Augusto Pinochet, which resulted in Allende’s suicide when military forces surrounded the presidential palace. In its aftermath, rather than restoring the country to its democratic idealism, Pinochet implemented a military junta that would ultimately elect him as president, which he would rule as until 1990. Immediately under Pinochet’s dictator rule, he had his military seek out thousands of Allende supporters to have them jailed, tortured, and murdered. Pinochet additionally had the Chilean senate dissolved and centralized governmental authority towards himself. As described by Thor Halvorseen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, history will always regard Pinochet with “the Desaparecidos, the Caravan of Death, and the institutionalized torture that took place in the Villa Grimaldi complex.”
This injustice and utter violation of human rights was sadly backed financially by the United States, who sought to have Allende removed from political office. The United States covertly supported Pinochet, while publically denouncing the atrocities to the American people, internationally, and to the press. According to declassified documents released in 1999, it has been revealed that the American government not only supported the government overthrow of Allende, but also paid contacts in Pinochet’s government that they were well-aware had committed egregious human rights violations. With much of the information about the US involved in the Chilean coup d’état still being classified, there are still ongoing court cases that condemn and seek justice for the American government’s complicity in this event.
Missing is the true-story of one of these injustices that the American government were at least aware of. Charles Horman was an American journalist who was arrested six days after Pinochet assumed power and was never heard from again. This film is about Charles’ wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) and his father Edmund (Jack Lemmon) desperately trying to find him and to determine if he is even alive (*Joyce Horman had her name changed to “Beth” in the movie out of worry that it would attract negative attention towards her.*). In the midst of frustrations, contradictions, and sometimes flimsy evidence, there is the glimmer of hope that Charles might be imprisoned somewhere and would be deported back to America. The genuine sadness of the film stems with Jack Lemmon’s performance, whose Edmund Horman is introduced into the film as a stern believer of America until he learns that the country he has revered so much was likely complicit in his son’s disappearance. Yet he was not left demoralized. As evidenced by the true-life Edmund Horman, he began a crusade against human-rights issues, vowing to hold any country accountable for such injustices.
Missing offers the moviegoer a true-story that has been personalized, but it also provides a vantage into the paranoid, genocidal regime of Pinochet. The visuals of dead bodies in the street, helicopters hovering over public establishments, gunshots continually ringing in the background, and even citizens grouping together to view dead bodies washing down the sea current, all portray a representation of a country that lives in fear and has normalized the understanding that murder occurs publicly. There was no precise methodology to the arrest and disappearance of thousands of people. The Pinochet regime arrested anyone they suspected of Allende allegiances, even if they were inaccurate. Charles Horman was not personally invested with the Chilean government, but it is suspected that his openness to asking questions may have gotten him noticed. What is known is that he was arrested, taken to the National Stadium in Santiago, and interrogated there before he was ultimately executed. Missing highlights that uncertainty by having Edmund and Beth (Joyce) searching location-to-location with no guarantee they will find anything that will aid their search. For both Spacek and Lemmon, their acting is astounding in these scenes where they attempt to maintain strength by repressing their fear and terror of the situation. Jack Lemmon especially excelled in his performance by portraying Edmund Horman as a father who wants nothing more than to find his son and is learning fact-after-fact that his son was likely executed, which weighs on his emotions.
The film’s tragic reality, which is represented throughout the film, is that the American government was well aware of Charles Horman to some capacity. This is information Missing conveys in its narrative, suggesting the American government may have felt threatened by Charles Horman uncovering information that would implicate and contradict the United States’ public condemnation of the Chilean coup d’état. Missing heavily suggests that not only did the American government know of Charles Horman’s fate, but they actively covered it up and fed Edmund and Joyce Horman misinformation of his whereabouts. The frustration of Edmund and Joyce stem from American officials doing the minimum to help locate Charles and providing deliberate contradictory information that suggested Charles was alive and “in hiding.” For such scenes in the film to have their full effect of frustration, Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek had to excel in their acting delivery, which they both did with stunning effectiveness. Both Lemmon and Spacek were left with the difficult task of portraying two true-life individuals respectfully, but also expressing them in a way that could be relatable to the movie viewer. This was a difficult task, especially when trying to not have the character deviate from feeling true-to-life. This is one the best aspects of Missing, its determination to not embellish or Hollywoodize the content of the film. Even with the film’s accusations of the United States government, the film never denounces any one person or country directly, not even Pinochet, even though the film heavily insinuates the human-rights atrocities he and his government committed.
Missing functions as an expose on the Chilean coup d’état, but also as an expose on America’s involvement in the conflict, which the State Department vehemently denied when this film was released into theaters in 1982. However, according to documents released and declassified with the 1999 Freedom of Information Act, it has been suggested that Charles Horman likely would have been killed only if it had been given approval by the CIA. In a State Department memo dated August 25, 1976, officials wrote “The GOC [Government of Chile] sought Horman and felt threatened enough to order his immediate execution. The GOC might have believed this American could be killed without negative fall-out from the USG [US Government].” The report went further in stating, “US intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman’s death. At best it was limited to providing or confirming information that helped motivate his murder by the GOC. At worst, US intelligence was aware the GOC saw Horman in a rather serious light and US officials did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of GOC paranoia” (*Source: https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1999/10/horm-o26.html). What this information reveals is that the content of Missing was not merely speculation or conspiracy theories, but undeniable truth about the United States government and its involvement with the Chilean coup d’état. Charles Horman was a casualty of both governments, and as the movie demands through its narrative and characters, questions deserve to be answered as to why his death was allowed to happen.
Missing is successful in that its argument and claims do not deviate from the truth and when contrasting them with recently declassified documents about the incident, they are tragically accurate. This elevates the importance of Missing as a film, by not only spotlighting its firm stance on finding out the truth, but also using that truth to never allow for this to happen again. In that regard, Missing is an incredible film, perhaps one of the best movies of the 1980s.
*Jack Lemmon won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival in 1982 for his performance in Missing.