A movie reality

December 24, 2023

An old film tells a contemporary story

A movie reality

Dear All,


n old film tells a contemporary story

Costa-Gavras’s 1982 film Missing focuses on the search for a journalist who disappears in the wake of the 1973 military coup in Chile. The movie, based on Thomas Hauser’s book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice, is about the disappearance of the American journalist. It is a powerful indictment of US foreign policy and its favoured tool of regime change to control other countries.

Horman went missing in Chile but the country is not specifically named in the film although several names and labels do reference it. The disappearance happened after the democratically elected socialist government of President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a violent military coup after which General Pinochet took over.

Horman was picked up, along with many others, in the purge phase of the new regime (similar to what happened later in Argentina when hundreds of thousands of activists, union leaders and journalists were ‘disappeared’ and then tortured and killed).

In the film, Jack Lemmon plays Ed, the journalist’s father who holds onto the naïve belief that his government helps and protects its citizens. As he and his daughter-in-law try to find Charlie, they find that their embassy is not being very helpful. Eventually, they discover that US officials are withholding information because US support for the Pinochet junta makes them complicit in the journalist’s death. The military attaché at the embassy even tells the father that what happened to his son was his own fault, “You play with fire, you get burned.”

The story of what happened in Chile in 1973 is the story of so many countries around the world. It’s a story of regime change engineered and supported by the US. It’s a story of the violence, repression, human rights violations and polarization supported and okayed by the US as part of a foreign policy which sees the destruction of socialism or any other opposing ideology as a legitimate aim. Given all the talk of supporting democracy and good governance, the US has destroyed many functioning countries. It has done so all over the globe: in South America, the Middle East, in Asia, in Europe. Often the destabilisation has been done by engineering a coup or waging a war. America has almost always supported the oppressor, the oppressor with military might – which often it can sell arms to.

One such story is currently unfolding before the world: Israel’s powerful army has unleashed upon the Palestinians a monstrous campaign of destruction, reduced Gaza to rubble and killed over 20,000 Palestinians. The number includes many children. Whoever is still alive will might starve or die of one of the many diseases that are the result of the unsanitary conditions prevailing because Israel simply does not want to allow any aid in. The US insists that “Israel has the right to defend itself.” The US is supporting the oppressor.

What is interesting in Missing is how the perspective of Jack Lemmon’s character Ed shifts as he learns of his own government’s complicity. He starts out as a Land of the Free-type American who is irritated by his son and daughter-in-law’s politics and who believes that America will always protect its citizens. By the end, he knows otherwise. Although, he tells embassy officials “I just thank God we live in a country where we can still put people like you in jail,” Ed Horan actually never sees anybody held accountable. A lawsuit against the US government is dismissed and even though his son’s body is sent ‘home’ it is sent so many months later that an autopsy is not possible.

An interesting anecdote from the time is that my own parents visited Chile not long before General Pinochet’s violent military action. The country had been paralysed by a number of strikes, most notably the Autumn 1972 truckers’ strike that disrupted logistics and brought normal life to a standstill. Several other business groups also joined in this action meant to destabilise the socialist government of President Allende. At that time my very outspoken mother told us that what she had seen definitely pointed to CIA involvement and recounted that she had seen many strikers openly brandishing dollars. We were young then and we tried to dismiss what she had observed as ‘paranoia.’ Of course, the facts all came out later. In 1974 a New York Times story by Seymour Hersh exposed how the US was “linked to strikes in Chile that beset Allende.”

Hersh said that the CIA had financed trade groups and strikers for more than 18 months before Allende was overthrown and that some $8 million dollars was used to support anti-Allende strikers. At that time Henry Kissinger said, quite brazenly, that clandestine activities were not aimed at subverting the government.

As for the Costas-Gavras film, the landscape is Chile but it is also not Chile. It is Mozambique, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya…. The list just goes on.

Best wishes,

Umber Khairi

A movie reality