Adapted from Thomas Hauser's book of the same name Missing won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1983 and was nominated for Actor, Actress and Picture as well. The film tells the story of a father who flies down to an unnamed South American country (known to be Chile) to search for his missing son during a time of civil unrest. If the film was trying to get any specific political message across it never quite hits home even though a jab at American involvement in Chile is quite obvious. Instead it comes across more as a family piece as a man and his daughter-in-law are able to set aside their personal and political beliefs in an attempt to find Charles Horman (John Shea), the missing member of their family.
Jack Lemmon stars as the father, Ed Horman, with Sissy Spacek playing Charles' wife Beth. Already not seeing eye-to-eye before his arrival Beth and Ed are at odds from the outset, and Ed has a difficult time adjusting especially considering his hard-headed approach toward Beth and her system of beliefs. It doesn't help the relationship any as Beth also has an upper hand when it comes to local knowledge and is already tired of getting the runaround from U.S. embassy officials. Ed being new to the investigation questions her behavior, but it is their slow realization they are on the same side in their hope of finding Charles and bringing him home safe that serves as the film's central thread, but all the while you get the feeling the safe return of Charles probably won't happen.
In terms of being a message film, Missing doesn't feel like one and if that was its intent it failed despite some horrific and frightening scenes. Where the film succeeds is in the hands of Jack Lemmon and his transition from a frustrated father having to come bail his son out of whatever trouble he is in to a man desperately trying to find out what happened once he realizes his government has lied to him. There is a scene in which Ed pleas for his son to show his face in a crowd of several nameless faces at a stadium converted into one massive detention center used to hold prisoners and execute them if need be. It's the first moment we really see a crack in his armor and his faith in his country's ability to protect its citizens abroad. It is from that point forward he no longer allows himself to hold back his emotions as he realizes he may never see his son again.
Throughout the entire film gunshots and low-flying helicopters offer up background noise as the coup plays itself out. You watch as Ed jumps every time a gun goes off while others remain calm as they have come to grips with the reality of the situation and the destruction it has brought. Without Lemmon's dedicated performance I am not sure this film would have ever succeeded. John Shea also works extremely well in helping us get to know a man we meet in the opening moments and ultimately come to care for more and more as the story progresses. Spacek is an actress I have never quite grown attached to and once again I would say she serves her purpose but doesn't bowl me over.
This was the first film I had seen from writer/director Costa-Gravas and I can't place my finger on the exact reason the story doesn't work as much as the performances, but I would say if he wanted the audience to treat the disappearance of Charles with greater dread he should have begun with the abduction. This would have most likely been the best way to go considering the opening scenes are simply a build-up to a moment everyone in the audience expects based simply on the title, which means the length of time taken getting to the abduction is extremely important.
Based on the messages that appear before the closing credit sequence I get the feeling Costa-Gravas was going for more of a political pic than the film ultimately proved to be, but it is certainly an interesting feature nonetheless. Lemmon gives a great performance as always and is endlessly watchable in most everything he's in, which is enough for me to recommend you dig this one up when you have a chance.