The scenes of siege are chilling: young men painting a mural under gunpoint, soldiers burning books in bonfires by night, prisoners herded into a stadium, bloody corpses lying in the street. Costa-Gavras' "Missing" tells the story of the first days of a military coup. Although the film never mentions the country's name, it is Chile in 1973, when Allende was overthrown. Missing is Charles Horman, a name that has been uttered in the U.S. Senate: he was a free-lance journalist who, some say, was executed during the coup because he knew too much. The implication is that the CIA sanctioned his execution. Horror is juxtaposed with haunting beauty. Beth Horman is caught outside after curfew one night in Santiago and unable to make her way home. The understanding is that she would be shot if she were discovered, and constant gunfire confirms it. She sequesters herself behind a garden gate. Awakened by shots, she looks up to see jeeps chasing a white horse through the square -- a picture of ephemeral loveliness mixed with brutality. As the all-clear is sounded, the morning light sets the city streets aglow with a deceptive beauty. She hurries home to find her house a shambles and her husband gone. As Beth, Sissy Spacek demonstrates an impressive emotional range of tenderness toward her husband, bewilderment at her loss and anger at the pretentiousness of officials who can't help her find him. She is a radical to her father-in-law, who says she and Charles should've paid more attention to "the basics," instead of choosing to live among the people. Jack Lemmon gives a stunning performance as a successful New York businessman who comes to Chile looking for his son. Armed with letters from congressmen and knowledge of Spanish that amounts to two words, "buenos gracias," he starts off with more faith in the system than most. But faced with priggish or heartless officials and non-cooperation by the U.S. Embassy, which seems to be helping when it isn't, he becomes disillusioned. As his belief in the system fails, Beth rises in his estimation to someone he sees as courageous. Spacek and Lemmon are a touching pair in their interplay as two different generations who come increasingly to understand and rely on each other. A climax in frustration is reached as the father-in-law suggests to the ambassador that surely there is a local police-assistance program that he can use to trace Charles. "I repeat, Mr. Horman," the ambassador says. "No such operation exists." Behind him on the wall of the office, one becomes aware of a photograph of a familiar face: Richard Nixon, smiling. This is a movie with an admittedly leftist slant. Some of the scenes are gruesome and powerful. But its politics are distracting, making the film less an artistic undertaking and more a political statement.

MISSING -- At the Avalon.