Costas Gavras’ Missing: Harbinger of Disillusionment

A little while ago, on this blog, while writing of my reading of Alex Haley’s Roots as a schoolboy I made note of it as “a member of that group of cultural productions that changed my view of the US forever.” Another distinguished member of that group would be Costas Gavras‘ Missing, a chilling movie that,

[I]s based on the true story of American journalist Charles Horman, who disappeared in the bloody aftermath of the US-backed Chilean coup of 1973 that deposed the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende.

Set largely during the days and weeks following Horman’s disappearance, the movie depicts his father and wife searching to determine his fate.

 I saw Missing as a teenager, alone, at a New Delhi cinema; like most movies that I went to see in those days, I knew little about what I was in for. Indeed, my level of ignorance ran embarrassingly high: I did not know who Allende or Pinochet were; I did not know there had been a coup in Chile in 1973. And I knew nothing, certainly, of the US role in it. But I had been assured the movie’s director was ‘famous’, that the movie had garnered critical acclaim. So I bought my tickets, and settled down to watch.

I realized very quickly, that something terrible was afoot; a nation was in turmoil, and innocents were being swept up in a maelstrom of violent political change.  Soldiers ruled the streets; gunfire rang out; and blunt, uncaring, force was applied to all too many who ran afoul of those seizing and retaining power. An atmosphere of menace hung over the urban landscapes the movies’ characters traversed, and a grimly inevitable fate seemed in store for all too many of them. One of them, of course, was Charles Horman, a young journalist–living and working with his wife in Santiago–and who, for whatever reason, falls afoul of the military authorities and is arrested and whisked away. He goes missing.

The nightmare begins at this point. Horman’s father, Ed, flies down from the US to look for his son, and expects, quite reasonably, that the US consular staff will assist him–and Horman’s wife, Joyce–as they seek to determine Horman’s whereabouts. Instead, they encounter a grim, baffling world of evasion, hostility and thinly concealed threat. The adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ is used too often; but it is never more appropriately used than here to describe the dead-ends, misdirections, indifference and obtuseness the Hormans encounter.

And that’s just the American response. It is clear, all too soon, that something terrible has, in all probability, happened to Charles Horman. And it is also all too clear that the American administration in Chile might have had something to do with it.  Or perhaps they know what happened to Charles, but they aren’t telling. As father and wife stumble from pillar to post, from embassy to jail to killing field to morgue, their grief, rage, frustration and anxiety mounts, as does the anger and the fear of the viewer.

At one stage, an American consular officer, utters the following chilling lines to Hormans’ desperate, anguished father:

I don’t know what happened to your kid, Ed. But I understand he was a bit of a snoop. Poked his nose around in a lot of dangerous places where he didn’t really belong. Now, suppose I went up to your town, New York, and I started messing around with the Mafia. I wind up dead in the East River. And my wife or my father complains to the police because they didn’t protect me. They really wouldn’t have much of a case, would they? You play with fire, you get burned.

And that is that.

We never find out what happened to Charles Horman. But we suspect, as Horman’s father and wife do, that he might have met a fate similar to those whose bodies they have seen, victims of torture and execution.

As the movie ends, the following epilogue appears, in white lettering, on a black background:

Ed Horman filed suit charging eleven government officials, including Henry A. Kissinger, with complicity and negligence in the death of his son. The body was not returned home until seven months later, making an accurate autopsy impossible. After years of litigation, the information necessary to prove or disprove complicity remained classified as secrets of state. The suit was dismissed.

I walked home, a little heartsick. I had witnessed the most frightening of encounters: between mere citizens, powerless and alone, and all-powerful, opaque and violent bureaucracies. I was shaken, and for days afterwards, was haunted by the sorrow and anger and fear I had seen writ large on those who searched, futilely and desperately for their missing loved one. I had begun to dream of a life in the US; and suddenly, uncomfortably, I realized my future home had dimensions and depths to it that I had yet to discover.

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