Who is to blame for the sudden disappearance of an American journalist?
Who: Augusto Pinochet and the Chilean government, Charles Horman
What: Missing (1982); Directed by Costa Gavras
Why: The film was believed to criticize the Chilean government and how they came into power
The sky begins to darken in the streets of Santiago, Chile. Sirens blare as Beth, a young American, runs from one street corner to the next in search of someone that will take her in for the night. She stayed too long at a friend’s house and was not able to catch a bus or taxi in time before the national curfew.
It is 1973, and the recent military coup has put dictator Augusto Pinochet in control. Strict new rules with harsh punishments have been put into place; the national curfew being one of them. No man, woman, or child is allowed outside between midnight and 6:00 am. Those in violation could face kidnapping, arrest, or even death.
Peering around a corner, Beth spots the military trucks and sees the soldiers burning books and seizing citizens. Frantically sprinting the opposite way, she finds herself in an alleyway and decides that it is her safest option for the night. She crouches into a corner, curls into a ball, and falls asleep to the sound of gunfire.
Morning arrives and Beth makes every effort to find her way back home: a small two bedroom condo she and her journalist husband, Charles Horman, recently moved into. Walking up the steps, however, she notices that something is terribly wrong. As if her chilling night out on the town was not devastating enough, Beth walks through the door and sees that her house has been ransacked. Books, papers, clothes, furniture are all destroyed or missing; and worst of all, her husband is missing too.
This is only a small glimpse of the chilling movie Missing by French filmmaker Costa Gavras. Following a traumatic plot about the disappearance of a young, Harvard-educated American journalist named Charles Horman, this film gives viewers a look into what life was like under the Pinochet regime in twentieth-century Chile. With a heartfelt story based on true events, it illustrates the horrors that occurred as a result of the dictatorship; and exposes the United States Government’s shady involvement with it all.
The foundation for the film’s historical events, however, were laid years earlier. In 1970, on November 3, Chile elected its first socialist president, Salvador Allende (Figure 2). He was very attuned to the people’s needs despite having a privileged upbringing; which was shown through the various policies that he implemented during his short presidency (a presidency that he obtained after multiple failed campaigns). His policies included taking possession of many American-owned copper companies and purchasing various privately owned businesses (Edward J. Gallagher, History on Trial, Lehigh University Digital Library). He also increased wages for workers while maintaining the prices of products, and authorized the printing of more money to offset the national deficit that he created. In the beginning, the Chilean people liked Allende and his policies. Over time, however, his socialist policies put Chile into a terrible position economically; with standstill production, rising rates of inflation, and food shortages being some of many issues (Gallagher). As a result, much of the lower class greatly supported him because it was the main beneficiary of his form of government. The middle class and Allende’s closest officials, on the other hand, felt alienated by their ruler, which laid down a foundation for revolt.
After three years of Allende’s presidency, much of the Chilean people were fed up. They wanted a change in government and they were vocal about their disapproval for Allende. Azucena Soto, who lived in Peru during the time of the revolution and in Chile during the subsequent dictatorship, remember seeing citizens “. . . clang pots and pans at night to protest the government. . .”(Soto). She also recalls “. . . people throwing corn at the military and calling them cowards for not taking over the government. . .” (Soto). This was the time when Augusto Pinochet, alongside three other generals, came into play on September 11, 1973 (Figure 3). Together, they forced an end to the Allende presidency through a violent yet meticulously-planned revolt. Soto sums up:
The country was in a very bad shape after three years of Salvador Allende’s communist presidency. The economy was in the worst crisis ever. People were tired of having Cubans infiltrating all levels, therefore, many of us saw Pinochet and the military coup d’état as the country’s salvation. September 11, 1973 will be a day that I will never forget because it was an incredible and magnificent deployment of military strategy. The Casa de la Moneda, the presidential building, was bombarded with such precision that the bomb thrown by the airplanes hit only the central patio. . .
After this takeover, Pinochet established a dictatorship in Chile in which no open elections were held for 17 years. Under his rule, all media was heavily censored with no resource being made public without first receiving approval from a censorship committee (for a short list of things that were censored, see the interview here). One of the many movies that was censored under his regime was the film Missing, a film based on the book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice. In this book and movie, Horman’s father, Edmund, takes a journey to Chile to find his missing son. Horman had traveled to Chile in 1973 to report on Pinochet’s coup d’état (a task that many other journalists pursued with a risk of dying; see here). In the process of searching for his son, Charles discovers evidence that the United States was involved with Pinochet’s takeover, information their son also found out right before he disappeared. With this revelation and final news of his son’s death, Charles and Beth (Edmund’s wife) return to the United States to consult government officials about the tragedy. Because Horman’s body is returned 7 months after he was killed, an accurate autopsy is impossible. Therefore, Mr. Horman and Beth have little to no evidence with which to accuse the Chilean government of murder.
The film, Missing, also became a source of controversy in the States due to its critical depiction of the American government. Many officials ( and specifically the US ambassador to Chile: Nathaniel Davis) resented these negative portrayals and argued that they were inaccurate regarding the United States’ involvement in the coup. Thus, they sued Costa-Gavras and MCA for defamation of character, and once the suit was filed, the movie went off the market only to reappear in 2006 when the case was dismissed. However, it should be made clear that history books now confirm the US’s involvement in Pinochet’s takeover.
As a self-proclaimed Marxist, Allende’s socialist policies went against many US interests, such as the copper companies that were taken over by the Chilean government at the time. At the time, the US also was working to prevent the spread of communism and feared that Chile was on a course that would end with the country being similar to Cuba (National Security Archive). This made the possibility of a change in power appealing to the United States, and it was later revealed near the end of Pinochet’s life (when he was incarcerated for his crimes) that he and the other generals had been talking with the CIA before and after the coup took place (Soto) (Figure 6). However, the CIA continuously denied its involvement in the event whenever they were pressed on the issue by Edmund Horman (Kornbluh 31).
Along with the US briefly censoring Missing, Chile did not show the film until Pinochet left power in 1990 due to its connection with the hostile takeover (despite the movie never specifying that it took place in Chile or even that it was about Pinochet). The government simply saw that it could cast a negative light on its regime, so kept it from being shown to the people in order to quell even the possibility of a revolution.
Beth Horman continued to search for answers regarding her husband’s death. She has filed complaints against Pinochet and Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Adviser (Volk 4). In 2014, the Chilean Court ruled that the U.S. had played a role in the death of Horman, as well as Frank Terrugi, an anti-war activist who also disappeared under Pinochet’s reign. In 2015, Pedro Espinoza and Rafael Gonzalez were convicted for the murder of Charles Horman and Frank Terrugi.
With repeated references to United States involvement in Horman’s disappearance, Americans became aware of its interantional involvement in Chile’s regime change and the death of an American citizen (Power 63). According to Bawden, the U.S. did not supply material support or ground intelligence, as depicted in Missing; but the CIA did send money to Allende’s opposition from 1971-1973. Regardless, Horman’s death serves as a reminder that journalism was and is a dangerous profession.
Keywords: Chile, Augusto Pinochet, Charles Horman, Censorship, Film, Costa Gavras, Marxist Government, Dictatorship, Chilean Coup
Bawden, John R.. “Re: Interview Questions.” Received by Chris Walds, 7 November 2016.
Gallagher, Edward J. “Historic Context of Missing – Political Turmoil in Chile.” Reel American History – Films – List. Lehigh University Digital Library, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
“Kissinger and Chile: The Declassified Record.” On Regime Change. Ed. Peter Kornbluh. N.p., 11 Sept. 2013. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.
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Lewis, David, Dennis Rodgers, and Michael Woolcock. “The Projection of Development: Cinematic Representation as A(nother) Source of Authoritative Knowledge?” Journal of Development Studies, vol. 49, no. 3, 2013, pp. 383-97.
Power, Margaret. “The U.S. Movement in Solidarity with Chile in the 1970s” Latin American Perspectives, vol. 36, no. 6, 2009, pp. 49-66
Soto, Azucena. “Re: Interview Questions.” Received by Chris Walds, 2 November 2016.
Volk, Steven. “Judgement Day in Chile.” NACLA Report on the Americas, vol. 36, no. 1. 2002 pp. 4-6,43-44.