During the Cold War (1945-1990) it was the policy of successive US governments to maintain authoritarian right wing governments in power all around the world if there was a possibility that they might be replaced by one from the left, democratic or otherwise. As the US ambassador in this film reminds us `we act in the interests of the United States', not in the interests of the country which happens to be suffering under a fascist dictatorship. We can accept this on an intellectual level how else can the US government establishment act - but in this movie Costa-Gavras uses his very considerable skills as a film-maker to rouse even diehard conservatives to anger over the methods used to ensure Pax Americana.
He does this by dramatising the real-life story of one of their number, Ed Holman (Jack Lemmon), a businessman from New York and a crusty Christian Scientist with faith in Truth, into the aftermath of a military coup in an un-named South American country the capital of which is called Santiago. (I think we can safely assume the country is Chile, though the locations appear to be Mexican.) His son Charles (John Shea), a vaguely left-wing journalist and writer, living in the city with his wife Beth (Sissy Spacek), has disappeared after being arrested a few days after the coup and carted off to a makeshift concentration camp in the National Stadium. Initially, Ed believes the people at the American consulate and embassy really are there to help him, but it soon turns out they have an agenda of their own. Ed and his son's wife start out on bad terms but Ed comes to appreciate her bravery in the face of a very unstable situation. He also comes to realise the moral worth of his son, who he had previously regarded as a bit of a playboy, much as he had loved him,.
An almost surreal feature of the movie is that people behave almost normally despite the obvious signs of murder and mayhem going on in the background. In fact the only time the `comfortable classes' are disturbed is when there is an earthquake affecting Ed's Santiago hotel. Otherwise, the guests are happy to watch from the upstairs terrace the military killing people in the streets. Of course General Pinochet still has considerable support in Chile, and in August 2000 your reviewer witnessed a large demonstration outside the Supreme Court in Santiago against a decision lifting the Life Senator's immunity from prosecution. It was a very well-dressed crowd.
Ed's odyssey through hospitals, morgues, police stations and the National Stadium is intercut with flashbacks which make it plain enough what has happened. Yet in classic thriller fashion we are kept on the edge of our seats with what will happen next. Politics aside, this film succeeds as a thriller involving believable people rather than stereotypes. Jack Lemmon gives the dramatic performance of a lifetime as Ed, the fuddy-duddy who really does care and leaves no stone unturned to find the truth.
Nearly 30 years later, Chile has a democratic government, Pinochet is too infirm to stand trial, Nixon is dead and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is an elder statesman on the celebrity circuit. The only communist regime in Latin America, Castro's Cuba, is still there. This film reminds us that immoral policy, whether or not it achieves its objectives, remains immoral. The fact that US foreign policy is regarded as being in the interests of the United States does not make it more moral, even if you happen to be a citizen of that country, where as Ed reminds us at the end, remains one in which you can at least sue for justice. Sadly, Ed did not succeed.