When the regime of Salvador Allende was overthrown in Chile, it began with a strike by truck drivers and spread into a general strike of workers who could no longer endure the arrests of dissidents, massive unemployment, and an inflation of 1,000 percent. A military coup took over, but the rebellion against Allende started from the bottom, not from the top.
This, however, is not the picture of Chile we get from Costa-Gavras's latest film Missing, in which the entire fault is placed on the military rulers headed by Pinochet and their alleged US accomplices. The film is indeed based on a factual incident recorded in Thomas Hauser's book The Execution of Charles Horman, and for all we know the incidents in the film may be true, although American involvement in the coup has been denied in a paper by the State Department in response to the allegations in the film. It is the subject selected rather than the treatment of it that tips us off on the director's sympathies.
Costa-Gavras is still best known for his thriller Z, an attack on the fascist military junta in Greece. At that time Costa-Gavras had no criticisms of the Soviets, who were of course meticulous in their respect for human rights. Yet he changed his mind about this in The Confession, concerning the Prague trials, which alienated the party faithful. His anti-American bent was obvious in State of Siege, concerning American involvement in Uruguay, and it comes out with equal virulence in Missing.
The film presents enough horrors to fill a dozen movies. Yet one cannot help observe that when the principals (Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek) are taken through hospitals and morgues to find the missing son, at least the officials do permit them to examine these places, something which would be unheard of in the Soviet Union, where one would look in vain for any person who had been imprisoned or sent to remote labor camps. One would not even be permitted inside the country to initiate such a search.
Whatever his politics, Costa-Gavras is an absorbing storyteller. Though none of his films can approach Z for electrifying suspense, Missing is first and foremost a human drama in which the havoc wrought on a nation is concretized in the grief of one family, and the revolution is used largely as a backdrop to their personal tragedy.
From the moment that Heartland starts rolling, the viewer's breath is taken away by the gorgeous scenery (Wyoming, 1910)—like Days of Heaven, except that this is the "real thing": the cycle of the seasons, the animals on the range, the ranch house tiny as an ant under the huge bowl of the sky, the authentic articles of the period down to the kitchen cutlery. Beauty and authenticity are the first impressions, which endure and are enhanced throughout the picture, but even so they are not the principal ones.
The overpowering impression left by the film is that of the tremendous hardship of the rancher's life. If the winter is severe, the cattle and horses die of cold or hunger. (The sound of hungry cattle and the spectacle of starving horses is too much for some viewers.) If a child is born, there is no doctor within a hundred miles, and precious little medicine. If the cow won't calve properly, there is no veterinarian to be called in. (The scene of the birth of a calf is both harrowing and inspiring.) If you want almost anything at all, you have to produce it yourself. The phoniness of most other Westerns is blatant by comparison.
The beauties of nature, which strike us so strongly in this film, were something the settlers did not have the luxury to enjoy; it is we who have that luxury as we drive through the region on modern highways en route to plush motels. The film shows us dramatically how little of a safety net—a safety net provided by the rise of technology—existed (throughout all history, and even in Wyoming in 1910) between the settlers and death from the elements. The whole film is a kind of vivid footnote to the descriptions of the interdependence of mankind in the products of labor such as are given in the opening pages of Henry Weaver's The Mainspring of Human Progress and Rose Wilder Lane's The Discovery of Freedom. The film emblazons on our consciousness what human life was like prior to the conveniences we take for granted and consider necessities; it makes us wonder whether, if the cord that ties us to the mainspring of human progress were to be cut, we could survive as heroically as they did, or indeed whether we could survive at all.
Australia does it again. Road Games, starring two American actors, Stacey Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis, never pretends to be anything more than a modest suspense film. But what it undertakes to do, it does very well. A trucker sees someone burying a body in the Australian outback and, due to a curious but plausible combination of circumstances, finds himself accused of the crime. The story is credible and suspenseful. As a fringe benefit, it provides us with fascinating glimpses of the terrain of western Australia along the national highway leading to Perth. Better a clear small gem than a large cloudy one.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His book Understanding the Arts was recently published by Prentice-Hall.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".