James R. Elkins

"Music Box" (1989)

  Some lawyers seem to fight for the sake of the fight, and then for some, there is clearly something beyond the fight that drives them. We might ask of a lawyer what is the fight all about? What is at stake for the client, for the lawyer? What is at stake for Ann Talbot in the representation of her father in his deportation trial?

When the United States government initiates proceedings to deport her father, Michael J. Laszlo, who has, according to the prosecutor, Jack Burke, committed horrendous Nazi war crimes "with his own hands" and is "evil incarnate," Ann Talbot replies: "My father is an innocent man." There is, in the world of lawyers, reputedly no greater burden--no greater fight--than the fight when an innocenct defendant is being represented. We don't see this kind of thing being played out in "Anatomy of a Murder" where the lawyer, Paul Biegler, appears far more "innocent" than his client, Lieutenant Manion. Amanda Bonner in "Adam's Rib" defends a woman who knowingly shot her philandering husband whom she caught in the act. Amanda Bonner represents a great cause, and her client is simply a vehicle for the cause that Amanda Bonner pursues. We don't see a lawyer represent an innocent client until Atticus Finch represents Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape by Mayella Ewell, in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

  Ann Talbot is warned by her brother, her ex-husband (who happens to be lawyer), her colleagues, and prosecutor Jack Burke not to represent her father. A colleague at her law office asks, "What do we know about our parents?" Ann's ex-husband advises: "I'm saying don't represent him. It's not just another case." And more directly: "What if he did it?"

How can we explain Ann Talbot's decision to represent her father, when to do so, she must ignore the advice of colleagues and family (at least some members of the family)?

  What kind of judge does Irving Silver turn out to be?

  What is your evaluation of Ann Talbot's cross-examination of the witnesses in the government's case against her father? [With the OJ Simpson trial in mind, we may remember Johnnie Cochran's decision to play the "race card" in that now infamous trial.] Ann Talbot seems to have made a similar decision in this case in making an issue of the fact that the witnesses are Jews, suggesting that Jews may be prejudiced against her father. In your view, did she have legitimate grounds to raise this issue? Keeping in mind that the trial is being conducted before a judge without a jury, a judge who is Jewish, was her strategy a sound one?

  If you believe in defining moments, paths that diverge and a choice to be made on which path to follow, lawyers are sometimes confronted with the Defining Case, the Big Case, the Case that Tests Your Substance. When Ann Talbot says, "Pappa, I'll represent you," we see her take on the Big Case. We begin to see, early on, that this case will be the defining moment in her life. Ann Talbot says to her father: "Pappa, it's going to be OK." He replies: "It's never going to be OK again."

  When Ann Talbot decides to represent her father, she moves out of her office, and sets up a temporary office with her father-in-law, Harry Talbot, who is also a lawyer. What kind of lawyer is Harry Talbot?

  In what sense is "Music Box" (as with the other films we have seen), basically about truth, and more particularly, how to live the truth?

  Constantin Costa-Gavras, the French director of "Music Box," is well known for his work with political films: "Z" (1969) [Wikipedia], "The Confession" (1970), "State of Siege" (1973), "Missing" (1982) [Wikipedia], "Betrayed" (1988), "Mad City" (1997). [See: Wikipedia :: Constantin Costa-Gavras] How does international politics set the stage for this film?

Costa-Gavras, asked in an interview about the political nature of his films, indicated disapproval with the characterization. He said of his films: "I think a social statement (would be more accurate). Or rather a social exploration. I try to understand what's going on around our lives." "The idea of politics, of making political movies, I don't know exactly what that means because all movies are political. Politics is how you behave every day in your life." Spliced: Interview with Constantin Costa-Gavras

Stephen Brophy in a review of Costa-Gavras's "Mad City" says of the director: "Constantin Costa-Gavras has developed a reputation over the last three decades for telling cinematic stories which simultaneously appeal to mass audiences and teach political lessons. He does this not so much by preaching a particular dogma as by placing characters in situations which are defined by political forces, and watching how they react." Stephen Brophy, Looking at Movies: "Mad City."


"Music Box," in Paul Bergman & Michael Asimow, Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies 177-181 (Kansas City: Andrews & McMeel, 1996)

Cynthia Lucia, Framing Female Lawyers: Women on Trial 46-68 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005)


  Jessica Lange was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Ann Talbot in "Music Box."

  Films & Foreign Politics: [fictional film & docu-dramas and documentaries, film listings by the Human Rights Library, University of Minnesota]

  John J. Michalczyk, Costa-Gavras: The Political Action Film (Philadelphia: Associated University Presses, 1984). This book examines Constantin Costa-Gavras work in the adaptation of The Execution into the film, "Missing," an intense drama about the disappearance of a young American journalist, during the Chilean political coup in September, 1973.

Film Basics


Reviews: Roger Ebert :: NY Times :: Eye for Film

Screenplay: Joe Eszterhas

Jessica Lange: Interview [audio]