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A New Thriller Grips Audiences, but the State Department Claims the Truth Is What's Missing

updated 03/01/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/01/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

The plot of the new Jack Lemmon-Sissy Spacek thriller Missing is at issue. As Hollywood tells the story, Manhattan executive Edmund Horman (portrayed by Lemmon) flies to a South American country resembling Chile to find his son, Charles, who has disappeared during a right-wing military coup. Charles is a free-lance journalist with leftist sympathies. The father is stymied at every turn in his search. He looks for clues in prison camps, police stations, government offices, but everywhere he meets with uncooperative government officials, an insensitive American Embassy and overwhelming contempt. Finally Edmund Horman and his daughter-in-law, played by Spacek, are brusquely informed that Charles' fingerprints match those of a bullet-riddled corpse that had been buried in the national cemetery.

Missing opens with the statement, "This film is based on a true story. The incidents and facts are documented." The State Department disputes those claims. The movie strongly implies that with the consent of American officials, Charles, 31, was arrested by Chilean police during the 1973 coup that toppled the Marxist government of Salvador Allende. The film also creates the impression that the U.S. government masterminded the coup and had Horman liquidated because he had uncovered proof of American involvement.

The State Department issued a detailed, three-page rebuttal. Meanwhile the man who served as U.S. Ambassador to Chile at the time, Nathaniel Davis, is threatening a defamation suit against Universal, the studio that made the movie. "Missing makes two central points," says Davis, echoing State's position. "Both are not true. The first is that the U.S. government was an accomplice in Charles Horman's death; the second, that we organized and plotted the coup. A Senate committee spent more than a year looking into the coup, with full access to the most secret files of the CIA and the State and Defense Departments. It came up with very clear findings: The United States did not engage in coup-plotting in 1973."

The film's director, Constantin (Z, State of Siege) Costa-Gavras, who adapted the story from the 1978 book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice, by Thomas Hauser, insists, "I have strong convictions the death was covered up. The book had five times more accusations than my film." The real Edmund Horman, a 75-year-old retired industrial designer, says, "There is nothing in the film that wasn't based on absolute fact." Charles Horman's widow, Joyce, 37, confirms Edmund's statement that "Davis and other U.S. officials lied about Charles when I was in Santiago, and they are lying now. No Chilean would have shot an American if another American didn't cosign the kill order."

The senior Horman was once a conservative who belittled the liberal views his son developed during his education at Exeter and Harvard. The young man, who had an IQ of 192, graduated magna cum laude in 1964 with a degree in English. He had experimented once with drugs(under Timothy Leary) and had been a civil rights activist. After Harvard he dabbled in writing TV documentaries. He married Joyce, the daughter of a Minnesota supermarket owner, in 1968, and in 1972 the couple moved to Santiago. There he occupied his time writing movie scripts (one subject: the history of imperialism in Chile). According to neighbors, "military men" broke into the Horman house in a rundown district on Sept. 17, 1973 and took him to the national stadium, where he was imprisoned.

The Hormans say they have found strength in their search for the truth about Charles. For Joyce, who has started a New York computer consulting firm, it has helped ease the pain of her husband's death. Edmund believes that he has grown spiritually closer to his son by finally coming to understand Charles' political views. But Charles' mother, Elizabeth, the least assertive member of the family, continues to live with her grief. "You stand here and you don't cry or faint," she says. "But the years pass, and the hurt doesn't go away."

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