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The films of Constantin Costa-Gavras are often described as political thrillers, and the phrase is helpful as long as we pause over it a little. There is always a strongly personal element to his stories, a human factor, and the thrills are in the politics rather than set against a political background. The corpses and the cover-ups, whether in Europe or in Latin America, are intimate features of actual historical situations—an assassination in Greece, an execution in Chile, genocide in Germany—rather than fictional elements woven into a political context, as in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), say, or Salvador (1986) or In the Line of Fire (1993).
Of course, the films of Costa-Gavras are fictionalized, too, and he insists that he is not a maker of documentaries. But the very act of fictionalization, in his case, is discreetly political. Z (1969), a film about the murder of a Greek politician and the ensuing inquiry, doesn’t mention Greece and is not, Costa-Gavras says, “a movie about Greece only.” But a title card at the beginning says, “Any resemblance to actual events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is intended.” Similarly, the director says of Missing (1982) that “the country where the story takes place is not identified in the film,” and yet the film opens with the statement, readable on the screen and pronounced on the soundtrack by the voice of Jack Lemmon, that “some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent, and also to protect the film.” In the version I saw long ago at a preview, the sentence ended at “protect the innocent,” and was followed by another: “The guilty are already protected.”
The point of the thinly disguised allusions is to avoid not the identification of the countries but too easy a limitation of the stories’ reach. These things happened in Greece or in Chile, and things like them have happened and will happen elsewhere. Don’t get too comfortable. Although, in fact, it is not strictly true that Chile is not identified in Missing. The beach resort of Viña del Mar is named, and scenes are set there; an American diplomat uses the word “Chilean”; and a coffin is delivered to the United States with the words “From Santiago” prominently written on the side. But Costa-Gavras is right about the effect of his strategy. If we have to figure out that this place is Santiago de Chile (or Thessaloniki), we will have necessarily figured out that it could be someplace else.
Costa-Gavras’s international background clearly has a lot to do with his themes and preoccupations, and the interplay between what’s actual and what’s possible in politics characterizes much of his work, from Z all the way through to his recent film Amen (2002), where what might have been done for the Jews in Nazi Germany is constantly contrasted with what was. He was born in Greece in 1933, finished his education in France, and went straight into film production, working as an assistant to René Clément, Yves Allégret, and Jacques Demy. His first full-length movie as a director was a straightforward but very sharp thriller, The Sleeping Car Murders (1965), about which he is now mildly (and wrongly) apologetic: “I didn’t like to start in this way but sometimes you have to make a thriller . . .” This work starred Yves Montand, who also appeared in several of the director’s other films (Z; The Confession, 1970; State of Siege, 1972; Clair de femme, 1979). Missing was his first American film and created, as it was meant to, a great deal of resistance and argument—even, although this was no doubt unintended, a lawsuit (for libel, ultimately dismissed, from State Department officials depicted in the film). It was and remains, however, a very popular movie, in the United States and elsewhere. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for best picture at the Oscars. Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek were also nominated, and the film’s screenplay (by Costa-Gavras and Donald Stewart, and an uncredited John Nichols) won the Oscar for best adaptation, from Thomas Hauser’s book The Execution of Charles Horman (1978).
Missing pointedly raised issues that for many people were only dimly in the air at the time, and which have become more and more unavoidable in recent years, as the United States has openly assumed its imperial role. Of course, at least since the revolution in Cuba in 1959, if not the Spanish-American War a half century earlier, there could be little doubt that the government of the United States intended to look very carefully after its interests in Latin America. But, the film asks, what are the constraints on how this is done, and what do American citizens have a right to know about these activities? More dramatically—and this is where the story kicks in—what if they get in the way?
As soon as the socialist Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile in 1970, in spite of many avowed American attempts to have the election go another way, the question of a military coup was on the table. But there is some distance between doing what you can to influence an election in another country (and accepting the result) and supporting a violent uprising; and indeed some distance again between supporting a homegrown rebellion and being the architect and engineer of the whole show. This is where the strong questions arise, and where doubts become possible, even among those who support some forms of intervention.
The coup occurred on September 11, 1973, and was led by General Augusto Pinochet, head of the armed forces, and later seen as the savior of the country or one of the century’s major war criminals, depending on your point of view. Allende was killed or committed suicide, and some forty to fifty thousand people were rounded up and imprisoned, many in the National Stadium in the capital city. More than seven hundred and fifty of these detainees were executed without judgment. The general and his cohorts ruled the country as a military junta until 1974, when Pinochet declared himself head of state. Chile returned to democracy in 1990, and Pinochet went into exile.
Costa-Gavras approaches the violent events of 1973 from the point of view of the baffled or frightened individuals caught up in them, opening his film on an intricate shot that places ordinary people in close visual relation to one another and to the larger, dangerous world about them. A young man sits in the backseat of a car looking over a half-open window. Reflected in the window is a group of small children playing soccer in a dusty open space. Then, still in the reflection, the children start to scatter, and a truck full of soldiers comes into view, bristling with helmets and guns. We are on the outskirts of the city, and the coup has already begun. The young man is Charlie Horman (John Shea), an American soon to disappear in a raid, and the sense of invasion, of a peaceful, civilian place turned into a war zone, dominates the first ten minutes of the movie. At one point Sissy Spacek, as Beth, Charlie’s wife, is caught out by the curfew and has to shelter in a doorway all night, sporadic gunshots echoing around her and corpses visible on the street.
Charlie has been in Viña del Mar with a friend, Terry Simon, and has had some disturbing conversations with Americans. One man speaks boastfully of a job being done and of moving on to Bolivia now; more generally, the sheer number of military or pseudomilitary Americans present is disconcerting to Charlie. What are they doing here? Charlie makes it home but is arrested a day or so later, taken to the National Stadium, as we later learn, and singled out and executed. This is possibly a random killing, as the death of one of Charlie’s friends, Frank Teruggi, seems to have been. And possibly it is something else. It is important to recognize that the little Charlie knows poses no threat to the Chilean military. What Charlie has learned is only that Americans have been involved in some way in the coup, but not how or how much. The U.S. embassy in Chile maintains until close to the end of the movie that there has been no involvement of any kind by the United States, that the position of the country is one of strict neutrality. Charlie may have been killed because at least he knew that this was wrong.
With Charlie’s disappearance, the focus of the movie shifts to his father, Ed (magnificently played by Jack Lemmon), a conservative Christian Scientist from New York who has no doubt that the government of his country means to do right in the world, or that, now that he has flown down to the country of the coup, the United States’ representatives will help him find his son, if his son is anywhere to be found. He loves the boy but is scornful of his vague left-wing sympathies and lack of a steady job, and sees Beth’s distrust of the authorities as the product of knee-jerk radicalism. “I don’t want to hear any of your anti-American paranoia,” he says. Gradually he learns to think differently of her, and his change is all the more affecting and believable because Sissy Spacek plays Beth with such quiet authority, mingling tenderness and distress with an unmistakable courage.
At last Ed Horman learns that the American embassy’s elaborate show of looking for Charlie is a sham because Charlie has been dead for some time—since before Ed came down from the United States, in fact. The scene in which he discovers this—and registers many other things at the same time—is both underplayed and elaborately staged. Lemmon scarcely reacts, but we know just what, and how much, he is thinking. He walks out of the office of the Ford Foundation, where he has heard the news, and finds himself alone in an immense and ornate stairwell, with marble steps running in four directions from a central landing. At first he pays no attention to where he is, walks down a stair, then starts to climb another, although the way out is down. Then he realizes what he is doing, turns, and leaves. It is as if the building is an image of the world that hasn’t been listening to him: still, stylish, overwrought, indifferent.
The hero of Missing, like the hero of Z, like the two heroes of Amen, is a good man who changes his (conformist) politics, or more precisely abandons his old political assumptions, for the sake of justice and what he learns of the truth. In Z, the man is a judge who at first can’t believe that the police and the army have organized a group of thugs to disrupt an antinuclear demonstration and kill a man; in Amen, an SS officer and an Italian priest testify, against their professional class and to their cost, to what is happening to the Jews in Europe in 1936 and after. Ed Horman doesn’t become less American than he was, and he has no interest in the coup or indeed in the possibility or the extent of the involvement of the United States. But he recognizes when he is being lied to, and he finds out how little he knows about what his government is doing—what it feels it has the right to do in his name.
This is the real question, and a key issue of the Nixon era and after. How secret does secret policy have to be, and how much secrecy is necessary? The American ambassador says to Ed Horman, “Let’s level with each other, sir. If you hadn’t been personally involved in this unfortunate incident, you’d be sitting at home, complacent and more or less oblivious to all of this.” Ed Horman doesn’t argue. And the movie invites us not, alas, to disagree, since great regions of ignorance and complacency constitute the fullest context for the film, but to ask what follows from this obliviousness. The ambassador also makes clear that his job is to protect American interests, not individual Americans, and we can wonder how prevalent and acceptable this priority is, and whether it is not exactly upside down.
In the film’s most memorable scene, Beth and Ed visit a morgue, finding there the body of Charlie’s friend Frank—whom American officials had certified as definitely having left the country in safety. Appalled and disheartened, Beth and Ed look around at a scene filled with bloodied and broken corpses. Then they turn their gaze upward in a movement of helplessness. The camera goes with them, and we see that the floor above, semitransparent, is also covered with dead bodies, their silhouettes hovering like huge black moths. Death is above and all around Beth and Ed, and Costa-Gavras has achieved a small miracle: through their sorrow he has individualized every member of this unburied human mass. “I have often thought,” he said in an interview given just before the film was completed, “when I read . . . about twenty thousand people dead or lost, who were those people? Who cared about them? Who would care about us if we disappeared?” These are not political questions, although the violent and unnatural death of so many could scarcely fail to be political in the broadest sense.
Michael Wood teaches English and comparative literature at Princeton. He is the author of America in the Movies and a study of Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour. His most recent book is Literature and the Taste of Knowledge.