In an unnamed South American country (Chile), American couple Charlie (John Shea) and Beth Horman (Sissy Spacek) have been living, writing and soaking up the culture. When civil war breaks out, the streets are filled with danger, night and day. Charlie takes notes on everything that happens around him, especially how the American officials react to the violence. The last words we see him say as he heads back to his house are, “They can’t hurt us, we’re Americans!”
After Charlie disappears, his father, Ed (Jack Lemmon), travels down to find him. Ed has this idea that he’s just down there to clean up the mess his irresponsible, day dreaming son made. He also has complete faith that the American government will help them find Charlie. Ed is also a man of religious faith, a Christian-scientist. To some that may sound like an oxymoron, so is believing in the American officials in Chile.
A good portion of this film is watching Ed lose this faith. Through the random acts of senseless violence he witnesses and the bravery he sees within Beth, he starts to understand the situation from his son’s point of view. Every time he meets with the American officials, it’s just more frustration. They make empty promises, shuffle through red-tape and lie right through their teeth. At first, Ed can’t understand how Beth can be so rude to the only people that can help them. It isn’t too long before Ed starts to see things clearly and thinks that Charlie’s disappearance and probably murder, was ordered by these same men.
What’s most disturbing and infuriating is the complete lack of valuing life in this place. In one scene where Beth and Ed are allowed to check a morgue to see if they find Charlie, they are brought into a narrow hallway filled with bodies. It’s a shocking moment, just terrible and disgusting. Then it’s elevated when they’re brought to a room, also filled with corpses, then another and another. We think this has to be as bad as it gets, then Beth looks up and sees the silhouettes of more corpses on the glass ceiling above.
There was only one main problem in this film. It felt like we had barely met Charlie when he goes missing. Sure, I saw his wife and father upset, but I was lacking that connection to Charlie and was left slightly apathetic. Then later in the film, we see Charlie in some home movies, learn about some dreams, half finished projects he left and the real danger of his snooping around. These things came a little late. If the film really wanted me to feel the same loss and anguish that Spacek and Lemmon were understanding, director Costa-Gavras needed to put the horse before the cart.
“You Americans, you always assume you must do something before you can be arrested.”
Really liked this film, though it rested entirely on the capable shoulders of Lemmon and Spacek. I agree with your observation about Charlie…John Shea plays the part likeably enough, but there’s just this feeling of his being something of a smart-ass. I recall back in ’68 when a friend and I had “plans” to go to Czechoslovakia to participate in the freedom movement…and think of the arrogance that was a part of that thinking. It’s kind of a rude awakening that being American somehow protects you from the consequences of in-your-face activities…thank God we stayed home. Wisdom would have tempered the Horman crowd activities with the realization of what can happen in a foreign land when authoritarian government takes over. Many lessons to be learned from this film…still it was an excellent one, one of my favorites of the year. Good editing, too, which was ignored by the Academy.
I think not getting to know Charlie too well in the beginning works. Like you say, the film is really about Jack Lemmon learning to understand his son more and more as the film goes on, so like him we are learning these things as he does. This makes the ending even more powerful to me, as he begins to look at some of these relics of his son’s life differently after his change in perspective. Really impressed by this film.