The 1982 film Missing, directed by Costa Gravas, dramatizes the case of Charles Harmon, an American freelance journalist and 1954 Harvard graduate, living and working in South America. What made Harmon’s story noteworthy was that he disappeared six days after a U.S.-sponsored military coup overthrowing the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile that was pledged to reform.
The reality of the Harmon case is that what likely landed him on the a death list wasn’t so much anything he did politically but rather his stumbling upon the U.S. personnel, uniformed and otherwise, that laid the groundwork and threw the switch to start the coup. This type of eyewitness knowledge in the hands of an experienced journalist was not an acceptable risk at the time when the U.S. sought vigorously to deny what is now part of the historical record.
Jack Lemmon plays the father of Charles Harmon and is spot on as a church-going, Rotary Club-type New York native, who assumes that whatever his government does must be for the greater good of the American people.
The Lemmon character arrives in Chile with the opinion that Charles and his wife (played by John Shea and Sissy Spacek) are middle-class radical wannabes who likely stuck their nose in where it didn’t belong, and now he, the sober adult, will have to bail the kids out of their jam.
Presented with the grisly evidence of the crimes of the coup plotters and their U.S. masters, he slowly comes to a different conclusion. He cannot ignore the facts of U.S. intervention that unleashed a fascist bloodbath in which anyone with even mildly progressive views, or who is simply in the way, was a target for outright murder.
The film boasts a number of significant performances. Gruff veteran character actor Richard Bradford nearly steals the show in a couple of brief scenes in which he plays an Office of Naval Intelligence operative who has a casual and barely coded conversation with Harmon at a chance meeting over breakfast in Viña del Mar, the city from which the coup was launched.
Richard Clennon is also good in his role as the slippery U.S. consul who spins the confused Lemmon in circles, all the while attempting to maintain the façade of friendship and helpfulness as Lemmon continues his hopeless search.
In the end however, it is Lemmon’s Academy Award-nominated performance that remains the standout. It is heartbreaking to watch his simple civics-class patriotism shattered by the cruel reality of an imperialist foreign policy that places the needs of big business over the lives of its own citizens. His journey from skeptical, annoyed parent, to desperate father in search of his only son, is moving in its sincerity.
Missing will forever remind us that when the gears of U.S. imperialism start to turn, innocent civilians, sometimes even our own citizens, are caught beneath the bloody wheels.
Release date: February 12, 1982 (USA)
Initial DVD release: November 23, 2004
Rated PG, 122 minutes