Missing (1982): Costa-Gavras’ Oscar-Nominated Political Thriller-Family Melodrama, Starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek

In Costa-Gavras’s Missing, the protagonist Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) is a prosperous American businessman, a practicing Christian Scientist who’s politically conservative. He doesn’t comprehend his son’s leftist views until the son is declared missing.

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

This was Costa-Gavras’ first all-American film, after an impressive career of political filmmaking that included “Z,” “State of Siege,” and “The Confession.”

The script, by Costa-Gavras and Donald Stewart, which won an Oscar, is based on Thomas Hauser’s book, “The Execution of Charles Horman.”

The film first depicts Ed’s growing desperation, blaming himself for the kind of education he had given his son–“If he had stayed home, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Taking a trip with his son’s sensitive wife, Beth (Sissy Spacek), Ed embarks on a journey of social and self-discovery, leading to a rude political awakening.


The raising of political consciousness of a man who, until this devastating experience, always believed in the sanctity of the government and accepted its policies and actions without any question or doubt. Ironically, it’s in the son’s horrible death, that father and son are finally reunited. The political cause which remains vague in the yarn serves as a leveler of the generation gap.

The film suffers from three major problems. First, we never find out how politically committed Charlie really was in the first place. Second, all of the American officials, especially Consul Phil Putnam (David Clennon) and US Ambassador (Richard Venture) are one-dimensional, and villainous at that, sort of plot points.

And third, as in other Hollywood movies, the realm of macro real politics is reduced to an micro individualistic level in the form of an intergenerational family melodrama.

Costa-Gavras came under fire for his indictment of American Embassy officials for tacit approval and condoning and covering up the death of a civilian American during the Pinochet overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile.

The rather schematic story is told from point of view of searching father and daughter-in-law, who get to know and like each other better as the journey goes along, involving an almost hard to believe a personal war against political bureaucracy and arrogant American chauvinism.

Charles is the Harvard-educated, counter-cultural journalist, who was murdered in Chile at the time of the 1973 coup that destroyed the Marxist government of President Salvador Allende Gossens.

Missing unfolds as a political thriller and family melodrama about the enlightening of a conservative middle-aged man, whose growing respect for his politically aware daughter-in-law changes his whole value system. It’s implied that the cost of Ed’s personal educationhis naivet, political apathy, and lack of criticism–is the loss of his beloved son.