By Richard Winters
My Rating: 5 out of 10
4-Word Review: She defends her father.
Anne Talbot (Jessica Lange) works as a defense attorney in Chicago and is shocked when her kindly father (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who immigrated to the US from Hungary many years ago, is threatened at having his citizenship revoked due to being accused of committing past war crimes. Several witnesses have come forward to identify him as being ‘Mishka’ a man who headed a Nazi terror unit known as the Red Arrow that systematically tortured and killed Hungarian Jews during WWII. Anne refuses to believe this and immediately volunteers to defend him in court, but as she researches the case she finds many unsettling elements that makes her question whether her father really is the victim of mistaken identity as he claims, or actually the man responsible for committing heinous acts against humanity.
The film was inspired by the true-life case of John Demjanjuk who immigrated to the US in 1952 and worked as an auto worker for many decades before being identified by 11 Holocaust survivors as being Ivan the Terrible who tortured and killed many Jewish prisoners while working as a guard at a concentration camp. Script writer Joe Eszterhas also adds his own experiences into the story by channeling the emotions he felt when he found out that his father had been involved in disseminating anti-semitic propaganda during WWII.
The plot had all the hallmarks of being a trenchant courtroom drama especially since it was directed by Costa-Gavras who has shown a knack for helming political thrillers with a psychological bent, but it all ultimately falls flat. Much of the problem is that we learn little about Mueller-Stahl’s character as his face never shows any emotion. At first this makes it interesting as he comes off like this kindly old man who seems the complete opposite of what he’s being accused of, but after awhile we need to see what’s going in his mind and beneath the facade. Whether it’s anger, fear, madness, or evil at some point it needs to get conveyed in his face as the trial goes on, but instead all the viewer sees is a constant blank stare that keeps the character frustratingly transparent.
Having a male model pose as the younger version of him in the wartime photos was a mistake too. Googling images of Mueller-Stahl when he was young shows that he looked much different than the model in the movie making the portions where the witnesses positively identify Stahl from the photos seem off-kilter since the guy in them even when given the realities of aging doesn’t look anything like the man sitting in the courtroom. To avoid this they should’ve cropped an actual pic of Mueller-Stahl into the war time photos.
The court case itself ends up becoming quite draggy because instead of focusing on one witness they put in several of them one after the other who essentially retell the same type of story, which gets redundant. There’s also some Hollywood theatrics that get thrown in like when Mueller-Stahl physically confronts one of the witnesses in the courtroom with no one attempting to restrain him before he collapses to the floor in a completely over-the-top fashion. Having everyone in the trial then get flown across the Atlantic to a Hungarian hospital to hear testimony from a dying witness only helps to turn the entire thing into a misguided spectacle.
Lange, who was Hollywood’s darling at the time and constantly offered first dibs at every ‘important’ movie that came out, gives a good performance, but her emotional character arch is predictable. The focus should’ve been on Mueller-Stahl’s character and what made him tick, but no insights are ever given even during the climatic final confrontation, which ultimately cements this as being a big disappoint.
My Rating: 5 out of 10
Released: December 8, 1989
Runtime: 2 Hours 4 Minutes
Studio: TriStar Pictures