Ann Talbot (Jessica Lange) is a busy 1980s career woman. She's built up a stellar reputation as a criminal attorney in Chicago, and is raising son Mikey through shared custody with her ex. Her father Michael (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is a lively widower, a Hungarian farmer who emigrated to the U.S. with nothing and built up a steady life for his family working in a steel mill. While Ann works, Michael helps out with Mikey, watching the Three Stooges with his grandson in the evenings and helping him with his schoolwork.
This scenario is a seemingly bland entrée for Costa-Gavras' third American production, Music Box (1989). Costa-Gavras is a Greek director known for his intense, internationally produced political thrillers that emphasize the gray area in politics and war where abuse lies—such as the French-Italian co-productions Z (1969), and The Confession (1970). Z, a multi-character analysis of the assassination of a leftist politician in an unnamed European country, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film; The Confession is the harrowing saga of a Communist bureaucrat in Czechoslovakia denounced by his comrades and held in solitary confinement without trial. In the 1980s, Costa-Gavras spent a seven-year period directing films in English, beginning with Missing (1982), starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, about a family trying to trace their lost son in Chile after the '73 coup.
Music Box, seven years later, was perhaps his most nuanced film to date. Although there are no guns or action sequences in the film, the story that unfolds is no less gut wrenching. Ann's life is thrown off track with the sudden arrest of her father. There is a Michael Laszo that is being accused of war crimes in Hungary, and the U.S. government believes that Ann's father is that same man. They're attempting to revoke his U.S. citizenship so they can extradite him to Europe and face trial. The Laszlo they believe Michael to be was an SS officer in Budapest during World War II, an especially vicious officer belonging to a police death squad known as "Aerocross."
Ann's father vehemently denies the charges—in 1989, Hungary was still part of the Soviet Union, and in the Chicago area Michael has cultivated some notoriety for his anti-Soviet activism. He argues that the USSR could easily have conjured up information asserting that he is this monstrous Laszlo; forging documentation and even going so far as to recruit false witnesses against him. His arguments are plausible—by the '80s the Iron Curtain had a long track record of using misinformation and public suspicion to discredit detractors abroad. Michael convinces Ann to defend him at his trial, and despite everyone's warnings that it will be too emotionally draining to defend him herself, Ann agrees to transfer her open cases to colleagues in order to devote herself solely to proving his innocence.
Although the evil that man is capable of in the name of bureaucratic duty is a central theme for Costa-Gavras, so are stories of the falsely accused and righteous miscarriages of justice. As Ann prepares for the trial and pours over the evidence against Laszlo—stories of shooting children in front of their mothers, forcing families to march in the snow to their deaths—the more she's sickened by the horrors of a war she's too young to remember. This Laszlo bears no resemblance to her father, who is a doting grandfather and a gentle man, a man who has by all accounts transformed himself from a European peasant into a blue collar American worker.
Clockwise from top left: the prosecutor compares the signatures on Michael's U.S. entry visa with that of Laszlo's supposed SS membership card; a witness describes how Laszlo executed his wife and son; another witness with the help of a translator tells how she survived Laszlo's brutality; Ann uncovers that one witness' son is a high-ranking Communist officer
As the trial begins, Laszlo's awful deeds during the war that are recounted by the witnesses are seemingly unimpeachable, but Ann deftly cross examines each survivor and uncovers a damning inconsistency here, a hidden Communist party loyalty there. But for every half truth or mis-memory uncovered by Ann, there's also an element of the witnesses' recollection about the officer Laszlo that mirrors a familiar trait of her father's: an oft-repeated phrase she's heard him say, or a mannerism that rings a familiar bell. It's this doubt, rather than any certainty of knowledge or piece of evidence, that begins to erode Ann's faith in her father's innocence. The closer the trial comes to drawing to a close in her favor, the more Ann doubts her father's story about the life he lead in Hungary, and the real reasons behind why he emigrated to the U.S.
Michael may not be telling the whole truth about his background, but is he this monster Laszlo that the government is saying he is? By journeying into the hidden corners of his life in order to exonerate him, Ann becomes increasingly afraid about facing the truth of her father's past. If her doubts are unfounded, how will she ask for his forgiveness; and if they're not, how will she be able to ever face her father again, or her son?
Music Box is available on DVD