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Films >> Missing (1982) >> Scene Analysis >>

Earthquake Apology

By Travis Statham

[1] In an interview with Dan Yakir, the director of the political thriller Missing Constantin Costa-Gavras describes the very heart and theme of his first American film.

Horman is the mouthpiece for the parents, wives, and children of those who disappear -- there are thirty-one countries where this is happening -- who find themselves completely alone. The despair of these people is horrible. People can accept death, because it’s irrevocable, but disappearing is an abstraction -- and you can't accept the uncertainty. The relatives of the disappeared are broken people -- the combination of hope and anguish is completely destructive.

[2] Costa-Gavras explains that this movie is not so much about the crisis itself but the people who are engaged in the crisis who must deal with it as it changes them. Many scenes allude to the shaping of the main characters embodied by Charles Horman’s father Edmund and his wife Beth. However, no scene better illustrates the culmination of the changes these two characters endure than when they have a drink after the earthquake in the hotel near the end of the movie. Together, they vacillate as one, mirroring the emotions that Costa-Gavras so closely defined as essential to the movie. They shift from heart wrenchingly hopeful to dismally sad, but despite such horrid feelings, they are at last one and the same.

[3] The scene is interesting because it starts off with an earthquake that shakes the Gran Hotel where Beth and Ed are staying. Rushing downstairs, they are just another part of the larger group looking for safety. They have no sense of personality here; Costa wants to show how they are part of the collective here so that their later personalities contrast more sharply to the other people’s plights. They are trapped inside the hotel, curfew is on, and the hotel hardly feels safe with the earthquake, so a drink together is the only way for them to calm their jitters.

[4] When Ed first sits down with drinks, the two act somewhat cheery as they toast life. Beth devotes her glass of wine “a la vida” and then says “Charlie and I always say that.” They are lost for a moment in a sense of Charlie’s memory, and the mutual feeling brings them closer. At this point, they are hopeful for Charlie’s return. The hope moves towards comradery as Ed begins an apology.

[5] Ed starts to apologize to Beth about selling the younger couple short. His old age has acted as a major difference between the two generations. He injects hateful and snide remarks every chance he has so far. For instance, 31:35 into the movie, Beth talks about how the two-week waiting period seems too long and that Charles must be hurt or tortured, but Ed interjects with an angry comment, “Oh, look, really, I don’t want to hear any of your anti-establishment paranoia . . . I certainly get enough of that from my son. If he had settled down where he belongs, this would never have happened in the first place. Please don’t cry.” The generational gap has driven a wedge between these two main characters, and it is not until the scene in the hotel after the earthquake that they truly connect as a family. In other words, the crisis has brought the two together. Costa-Gavras explains it this way: “here it’s important to stay as close as possible to the two human beings and their common problem” as opposed to the crisis being more important than the people (Wood 43).

[6] Ed continues their conversation by confiding in Beth insofar as to say that “his heart has been torn out” of him. The overpowering guilt that Ed feels from the crisis at hand is showing the audience how he is beginning to accept Charles’s death as the more likely result and that he as a father is the one to blame for it. This relates back to the idea that the families of the missing are in a horrible predicament in which they dither between death and hope. Costa-Gavras is fully aware of this perception as he describes our darkest of fears: “Death is a fascinating subject. Culturally, we’re not at all prepared that somehow we’ll manage to avoid it, so nothing prepares us for it. Yet it’s the most certain thing of all” (Yakir 2). Ed is only now beginning to face this fear, and it scares him so much that he must confront the generation gap with Beth and give her the comfort they both need. He does this by telling Beth that she is “one of the most courageous people” he has ever met. This is the first major compliment he gives his daughter-in-law and she is honored by the exchange.

[7] Just as soon as they begin to bond, the question returns, is Charles alive or not. Beth asks Ed if he “thinks he’s dead,” and he replies with a very hesitant “I don’t know.” Here, Ed is confronting all the negative evidence in his head and still holding onto hope. He is still marching toward that optimism, but as he thinks more and more about it, he continues “No, no. I don’t think . . . he’s dead.” It is as if he realizes that his “I don’t know” comment is too close to death, and he reconciles that by saying that Charles isn’t dead. But, really, this is the moment at which he is lost for words and knows most likely that his son is really dead. Beth reads his mind accurately by asking, “But that’s not really how you feel, is it?” Her question is the expression of anguish and the one sentence that shows that they have both been destroyed by Charles’s disappearance.

[8] The scene pulls out of the depressing topic of Charles’s life when Ed ignores Beth’s question and launches into more hopeful comments about a conversation with his wife Elizabeth. At this point, they have both found that they agree that Charles is missing and probably will never be found, but they must continue to look for him because they have no other options. The flip-flopping nature of the emotions that befall the people related to a missing person has drawn these two very different people together. As Michael Wood, says, “The film exacerbates the differences between father and daughter-in-law, and implicitly between father and son, so that we can see suspicion and disagreement turn into understanding and affection in the course of the movie as Ed and Beth come to share various truths about the situation in Chile” (43). Having reconciled their differences, Ed realizes how much Beth loves his son and comes to accept her as an equal when he asks her, “You kids love each other very much don’t you?”

[9] The scene seems to prepare the viewer for the ending quarter of the movie since in the following scene Ed is given information that Charles is indeed dead. Thus, this scene is the culmination of the search and the resulting assessment by Beth and Ed that Charles is most likely dead. It prepares the viewer with the inclination that either a happy ending is right around the corner or a sad one that, at least, the two characters have prepared for and are ready to accept.