Saturday, August 3, 2019

Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Missing. A Movie Review

The formula comes in a variety of forms. Let's look at three variations on the theme.

I will be sharing info on all three films as if you've seen them.

The Man Who Knew Too Much
In this 1956 Hitchcock thriller, a doctor (Jimmy Stewart) and his wife, the popular singer Jo Conway McKenna (Doris Day) are traveling in Morocco with their young son. On a bus from Casablanca to Marrakesh they meet a Frenchman named Louis Bernard. Bernard is friendly but his answers to questions seem evasive, leaving Jo suspicious of the fellow. It's a quick setup, creating suspense in what appears to be an otherwise innocuous and casual situation.

As it turns out, there's much more going on than they realized. When Bernard is later stabbed in the back in the marketplace (literally, not figuratively as in office politics) he discloses a secret to Dr. McKenna that there's going to be an assassination attempt of a person of high importance. The stakes are raised when the McKenna's son is kidnapped so that they will not interfere with what has been planned. How ironic that the man of whom she'd been suspicious turned out to be the good guy, the couple into whose care she trusted her son were criminals.

Plot: Ordinary people inadvertently get caught up in a much bigger situation.
Quest: How find their son AND stop the assassination.
Clue: Ambrose Chappel.

Marathon Man
The movie's tagline blurb reads, "A graduate history student is unwittingly caught in the middle of an international conspiracy involving stolen diamonds, an exiled Nazi war criminal, and a rogue government agent."

Babe Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a graduate student at Columbia University and also a marathon runner. His brother, he believes, is an oil company executive. He doesn't realize that his brother, Henry James Levy, is actually a government agent in a secret agency. The truth comes out when his brother comes to Babe's apartment to tell him something as he is dying from a knife wound. The brother dies before he can reveal anything.

Babe is interrogated by police and then some other people from the agency. No one knows whatever it was that his brother sought to share, yet the bad guys believe he knows more and are determined to find out what it was.

EdNote: There's a torture scene in this film that gave me nightmares that I have not watched it since. i.e. it's not my favorite movie but memorably represents the genre.

Plot: Ordinary person inadvertently caught up in a much bigger situation.
Quest: How to stay alive and find out what's really going on.
Clue: A key.

A powerful expose of America's dark doings in the September 1973 coup d'etat in Chile. An idealistic young writer disappears. Beth Horman, his wife (Sissy Spacek) and his dad Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) have the same aim, but there's immense tension because Ed believes the Americans are the good guys, and Beth distrusts everything they say.

Plot: A young writer inadvertently crosses paths with the wrong people and later disappears.
Quest: Wife and father do all they can to learn where he is, whether he's alive or not.
Clues: Many, with red herrings everywhere.

* * * *
This is Greek director Costa-Gavras' American debut and it is spot on. The beauty of this film is that it weaves three points of view into one story and how the sparks fly as a result. The three perspectives are these. Beth is cynical about what our government claims and sees the lying clear as day. Ed believes the U.S. is a good country and that by trusting the authorities he will get to the bottom of this. The embassy authorities know they need to appear to be cooperating with Ed, but also believe the truth is irrelevant. It's not possible for them to be transparent about what they have been doing.

Before seeing this film I was familiar with Arlo Guthrie's heart-wrenching protest against what happened in Chile in a song titled Victor Jara which appeared on his Amigo album. (1976) Victor Jara Martinez was a teacher, poet, singer-songwriter and leftist political activist in Chile up until the coup that overthrew President Allende in September 1973. His protest songs were about peace and social justice, but his death at the hands of the U.S. sponsored Pinochet government was quite contrary to peaceful.

The song is essentially the story of Jara's life, from peasant to singer-songwriter who "fought for the people of Chile with his songs and his guitar." Each verse ends with "His hands were gentle, his hands were strong."

After several verses describing his support for working people and campaigning for Allende, there's a transition to a scene that is central in the film Missing, inside the stadium.

When Pinochet seized Chile they arrested Victor then –
They caged him in the stadium with 5000 frightened men

Costa-Gavras' treatment of the stadium is almost as if this structure were a character in the story. Early on we're in a car moving past it, and again we get a closer glimpse. Further into the story Ed is interviewing one of Beth and Charles' friends who had been arrested and taken to the stadium. Finally Ed and Beth obtain permission to go into the stadium to see if Charles is there. Ed comes face-to-face with the magnitude of the horror.

Amigo is one of my favorite albums by Arlo, so I don't even have to look up these lyrics.

The broke the bones in both his hand, beat him on the head, 
They tore him with electric wires and then they shot him dead.
His hands were gentle his hands were strong.

I share all this as setup for the story of Beth and Ed looking for Charles.

Charles Horman (John Shea)
Charles and Beth were dreamers of sorts, like many of us when we were young idealists in the 60s and early 70s. They were looking for a better world. Charles was writing for a controversial newspaper. addressing issues.

After the military overthrow and martial law there was an intense fear instilled in the city along with curfews, shootings in the streets and thousands being arrested.

Charles was away from the capitol in another part of the countryside, Viña del Mar, where he encounters U.S. operatives staying at the same place he is. Seeing that he's an American they are very open with him about what they're doing, which is helping overthrow Allende in order to install a pro-U.S. government. Charlie asks too many questions and takes too many notes, and the end result is his later disappearance. He was another man who knew too much.

Beth and Ed, seeking truth.
His father flies to Santiago as soon as he learns his son is missing. He's a conservative Christian Scientist, and up till this moment never thought much of what his liberal son and daughter-in-law were doing.

This is what makes it such a great film. Beth and Ed have a somewhat adversarial relationship at the beginning, but as the story unfolds Ed keeps running into U.S. Embassy b.s., he begins to have a change of heart. By the end of the film there's a mutual respect between Beth and her father-in-law as they learn what Beth suspected all along. Charlie was eliminated. He'd heard and seen too much.

It's heartbreaking, but an essential and important film revealing the manner in which our government views other nations, not as autonomous states but as pawns to be manipulated for our own ends.

In Seymour Hersh's incisive account of the Kissinger years, The Price of Power, we see the ugly side of the Nixon-Kissinger reign. Hersh spends more than forty pages debunking the Kissinger claim that what the CIA did in Chile was a U.S. victory.

Sadly, our heavy-handed involvement in Chile wasn't the first time our government assisted in the overthrow of a democratically elected president. (See my blog post Propaganda Revisited.)

As Ed experiences first-hand the atrocities taking place and the lies coming out of the mouths of our U.S. spokespersons, the real picture begins to come into focus. His determination becomes an Ariadne's thread that leads him out of the bureaucratic labyrinth.

In the end Ed respects Beth's courage, and Beth respects Ed's boldness, and active love for his son.

The film is based on a true story about one of many ugly chapters that have occurred during our lifetimes if you're a Boomer or beyond. After the generals seized Chile in 1973 the Constitution was suspended and dissidents kidnapped, tortured and killed. There were no free elections until 1990.

Kissinger's two volume memoir paints a picture of himself as a heroic figure. His fingerprints were all over this chapter from Chile's marred history.

An illuminating moment comes when Ed confronts the U.S. ambassador after learning what has really happened.

U.S. Ambassador: We're not involved, Mr Horman. Our position has been completely neutral.
Ed Horman: That is a bald face lie, sir. How can you say a thing like that when you have army colonels, you have naval engineers, they're all over Viña Del Mar!
U.S. Ambassador: Please sit down. Look, it's very obvious you're harbouring some misconception regarding our role here.
Ed Horman: What is your role here? Besides inducing a regime that murders thousands of human beings?
U.S. Ambassador: 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. This mission is pledged to protect American interests, our interests.
Ed Horman: Well, they're not mine.
U.S. Ambassador: There are over three thousand US firms doing business down here. And those are American interests. In other words, your interests. I am concerned with the preservation of a way of life.
Capt. Ray Tower, USN: And a damned good one.
Ed Horman: [Staring out the window] Maybe that's why there's nobody out there.
U.S. Ambassador: You can't have it both ways.

So, what is the correct response when one begins to see the light? Kissinger won. And our moral leadership of the free world took another hit.

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