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Reflections of the Third Eye
18 September 2013
Costa-Gavras' "Missing" (1982)
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Topic: M

The resurgence of realism in 1970s cinema spawned two interesting sub-genres that combined naturalistic story-telling with Watergate fallout and an increasingly paranoid counter-culture. The first batch included political paranoia movies such as "The Parallax View", "Three Days Of The Condor" and "All The President's Men". In the early 1980s, as the Golden Age naturalism was falling out of favor elsewhere, a second wave of intelligent political thrillers set on foreign ground emerged, usually with a journalist at the center. These include "The Year Of Living Dangerously", "Under Fire", "The Killing Fields" and, as the genre's arguable swansong, Oliver Stone's "Salvador" (1986).

It is fitting that one of the earliest movies that helped define this sub-genre was made by Greece's Costa-Gavras, who originally made a name for himself with the powerful "Z" back in 1969 and continued to make political movies in Europe through the 1970s. In 1981 he got to make his first Hollywood feature, based on his own script which in turn built on a book about actual events in Chile during Pinochet's military coup in '73. "MISSING", as the resulting movie was defensively titled, tells the story of a middle-aged American (Jack Lemmon) who travels to an un-named South American country to find out what happened with his son, a naive young writer who had begun to take an interest in an on-going military coup. The father is assisted by his daughter-in-law (Sissy Spacek) who has developed a substantial cynicism regarding both the local regime and the American embassy's futile efforts. The movie chronicles their search while details about the missing son's inquiries are presented partly in flashback.

What's great about this genre is that it provides both a setting, a storyline and a mood that are naturally engaging. 1970s aesthetics demanded that everything be shot on location or in totally convincing sets, and from there on it's mostly a question of the psychology and interplay of the protagonists. And "Missing" gets very strong in this department, once Jack Lemmon steps off the plane and begins to interact with unreliable US diplomats and Spacek's crass defaitism. Both of the main parts are strongly written, and it's a delight to see Lemmon and Spacek click like clockwork, despite their great difference in age, as they overcome their natural skepticism towards each others. The quest for the missing son is the engine of the storyline, but, as tends to be the case in these foreign policy thrillers, the characters of the protagonists is what makes the scenes work. It's fascinating to see Lemmon's brilliant old skool method acting connect seamlessly with the dark, late-phase realism of "Missing".

Costa-Gavras strove to create a fairly commercial movie that in theory could work as a straight-ahead crime story, as evident from the substantial efforts put into making the repetetive settings (hotel room, lounge, embassy) look a little different each time. An intellectualized work may have exploited this limitation to create a Kafka-esque milieu (think "Barton Fink") but with new camera settings and changed lighting, boredom from stasis is avoided. Like all movies in the style, there are grim images of dead bodies stapled high to fill an entire morgue basement or left to rot out in the streets, and live executions before the camera. These things, and much else in "Missing", can also be found in the small wave of similar movies that followed in 1983-86.

I would like to proclaim this a 'great' movie, but unfortunately I can't. I'm not one to fret over plot holes, especially not in sci-fi and fantasy movies which are all make-believe and illogical by their very nature. In more realistic cinema, the demands are naturally higher, but it would still have to be a fairly major plot hole for it to affect my overall opinion. This is going to be pretty spoiler-heavy, but I want to lay the entire thing out on the chance that someone can correct me and explain that it's not a plot hole at all!

As the movie progresses, attention moves more and more towards the research activities of the missing son Charles (a somewhat bland John Shea) prior to his disappearance. The narrative flow turns non-linear with flashbacks and even 'hypothetical' scenes, which jars with the fundamental realism convincingly established. Moving into the third act, the viewer unexpectedly learns that the young man's inquiries about the coup had been much more substantial than what was revealed earlier in the movie. In other words, the viewer is first shown a partial flashback, but the most important aspect of the flashback sequence is withheld until much later. This is not a very elegant way to emphasize the thriller aspect of the movie, and it indicates an indecisive compromise with commercial demands.

In order to justify this curious breaking up of a simple, linear storyline, Costa-Gavras lets the left-behind note book of Charles reveal these deeper and more dangerous inquiries he had made, as Lemmon and Spacek read them. The reasons for the military regime and its corrupt US supporters to get rid of the troublesome young American now become much clearer, and after this insight the final resolution to the quest comes as no surprise. The cause and effect link is thereby rescued, but the normal conventions of story-telling are violated in order to maintain a sense of mystery until the final reel. Any cineast will feel an unpleasant tingling in the back of the head from the director's tortured wrangling with plot, factual data, and studio expectations. Truth is, there isn't much of a thriller or detective story in the "Missing" story, and it's unfortunate that Costa-Gavras, after nailing the characters, dialogue and moods so very well, forces his hand to break not only dramatic logic, but also rules of the style. Without having checked, I believe that none of the 4-5 movies I mentioned above contain flashbacks and certainly not chopped up flashbacks.

But this is not the actual plot-hole, just its origin. Since the story was forced into the non-fitting mold of a mystery thriller, Charles' note book aquires a central role in revealing the full nature of the case. This, however, falls apart pretty fast, since the note book has been on hand throughout the movie--it's not like it was discovered in a hidden drawer or a bank vault. Spacek, as the missing Charles' wife, had the note book within reach all the time, and at least two early scenes refer to his detailed note-taking. So, logically, one of the first thing Spacek's character would do, is to go through his note book and see if there are any clues to what happened to him. But she doesn't do this until near the end of her and Lemmon's quest, which is particularly annoying since there are indeed clues in it to what happened to Charles (i e: his detailed coverage of American involvement in the coup), which she would have used to go to media or press the case harder with the US embassy. 

But the plot hole is actually even wider, because it is unlikely that Spacek needed to read Charles' notes to find out what was going on with the coup--their social circle were all young counterculturists and discussed things like this with great interest. It seems quite unlikely that Charles, and the female friend who accompanied him (Melanie Mayron) didn't tell Spacek and their liberal friends what he had found out from the US military personnel he chatted with. It was big news, and also excellent gossip. The third and final problem arising from this plot hole concerns the same female friend, who was present when Charles did his inquiries, and must have known just as much as he did about the foul play behind the coup. And unlike Charles, she wasn't dead or even arrested, and the Spacek-Lemmon investigative team could simply ask this female friend if Charles knew anything that might have been a risk for him. Which of course he did, and which the friend knew all about, and could have told them at any point. Instead, the friend is conveniently written out of the script about halfway through. "Missing" treats Charles' notes as though they alone held the mysterious data he elicited, even when the movie had already shown us that at least two more people undoubtedly knew it all.

Again, this wouldn't have been a big deal if it hadn't concerned the central axis of the storyline. As it is, it becomes a stumbling block for any attentive viewer familiar with genre conventions and plot devices. Once one starts pulling at the loose thread of this non-secret note book, other problematic strands emerge, and one is left sitting with a movie which was on its way to greatness, but sacrificed it for the sake of inserting a dramatic mystery where one wasn't needed. It's not necessarily the Hollywood studio's fault (after all, Costa-Gavras wrote the script) but the suspicions would seem to go in that direction. Ah, too bad. Still, a movie with many fine elements, most of them involving Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. 6 of 10


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 10:08 PM MEST
Updated: 29 September 2013 12:01 AM MEST

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