Saturday, February 24, 2018

Movie Reviews: Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.
directed by Dan Gilroy

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Mark 8:36

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a poignant slice of life legal drama overseen by the Nightcrawler director. The title character (Denzel Washington) is the secondary partner/employee in a two person law firm. Israel is either extremely socially inept or a high functioning autistic. Israel's knowledge of and passion for the law and justice is inversely related to his ability to interact with people. Israel processes information and stimuli differently than most people do. So Israel is not a deal maker or outgoing trial attorney. As he ruefully admits, "Public speaking is usually something I'm encouraged to avoid." Israel has a very strong, even rigid, belief in right and wrong. 

Israel hasn't become wealthy or even moderately well off in his chosen field. But material wealth isn't important to Israel. As long as Israel can eat his peanut butter sandwiches, fight the power in occasionally quixotic fashion, listen to old school jazz and soul music, and stay out of the limelight he's a content man, if one without a car.

Many people have some inconsistencies between their ideals and reality. Even the most outspoken prideful employee might not curse out his boss and so lose his job if the worker has children in an expensive private school. A writer might sell her novel to a film studio for an adaptation and silently fume as the film producer and director change the race of the main characters to attract more viewers. A musician could believe that people should hear and appreciate his music solely on its merits before realizing that payola and sex appeal are often necessary compromises for success. And so on.

Sometimes we have to pick our battles or sacrifice less important beliefs to maintain core ones. Israel is a man who has rejected such compromises. Israel hasn't really been put to the test. He's avoided many practical moral dilemmas. This film examines what happens when a pure man has to face reality head on for what could be the first time in his life. 

Israel's senior partner William Jackson is a former law professor and civil rights legend. Israel would have been on the tail end of the movement but he's definitely served his time in the trenches. Israel's apartment is filled with civil rights and nationalist posters, books, speeches, photographs, and other memorabilia of his movement days. Watching this movie I was reminded of some of my older relatives who traded the activism of the sixties and seventies for jobs to support their families. I also remembered some relatives who remain or remained self-identified (and poor) "revolutionaries". It can warp your reality map to realize that few people care about your most important ideals and goals.

After Jackson's heart attack, his family closes the unprofitable firm. Forced to search for another job, Israel discovers that his age, personality and lack of industry connections work against him. Law firms don't want to hire aged activist lawyers with little trial experience. Israel's only option for paid employment is George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of Jackson's.

Pierce runs a large and successful law firm. Pierce kept in touch with Jackson over the years. Pierce fancies himself an astute judge of talent as well as someone who owes Jackson something. Pierce thinks he sees something in Israel beyond Israel's uncanny ability to quote obscure law codes and judicial decisions in exquisite detail.  

Israel doesn't like or trust the sharp dressed Pierce. But even a fierce idealist needs to eat and pay rent. I appreciated that this movie didn't take the easy copout and make Pierce a villain. There aren't any cardboard cutout villains here. Most people battle their own internal bad impulses. And we all have them, even honorable men like Israel. 

Israel's fearlessness in doing what he considers to be the right thing (he's unafraid to chastise cops, law firm partners, prosecutors and judges) is balanced against his increasing suspicion that his life and work are meaningless. Maya (Carmen Ejogo) the leader of a local activist group, serves as Israel's ethical mirror and conscience. Maya's intrigued by Israel's apparently unbreakable moral convictions. Washington truly inhabits and owns this role. Israel's old rumpled cheap suits, headphones, ipod and Dr. J style afro show his old school stance just as surely as his Angela Davis posters. Washington physically communicates the film's view of a romantic who is facing physical and emotional exhaustion. Israel is a man who no longer fits in this world but still has to live in it.

Israel shuts out alternate viewpoints, literally, as he is usually listening to music in order to avoid talking to people. His headphones are his shield against the outside world and a metaphor for his moral single mindedness. This film tells a neat tale of sin and salvation without dwelling in the muck. There's little violence or sexual content. There is really good acting. The legal jargon doesn't prevent non lawyers from following the story. Israel is an Everyman who wants justice. He could have just as easily been a fireman or a banker or real estate broker. The film is a little long with a few sideplots that could have been trimmed, but other than that is worthwhile viewing.
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