When I was a kid playing basketball at the local Jewish Community Center, I would often hear adults mentioning famed football coach Vince Lombardi’s comments about winning. Here are some of those quotable quotes: “Success demands singleness of purpose.” “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” “Second place is meaningless. You can’t always be first, but you have to believe that you should have been – that you were never beaten – that time just ran out on you.” These statements fit the profiles of the two central characters in The Prestige, a mind-bending tale of two adversarial magicians who spend their lives trying to best the other professionally.
Their initial friendship turns into bitter rivalry when the wife of Robert Angier, known as the “Great Danton,” dies in a magic trick because of a knot tied around her hands by Alfred Borden, a competing magician who is assisting Angier in his show. It is unclear whether Borden disregarded a warning not to use this particular kind of knot and deliberately placed Angier’s wife at risk by making the knot more difficult to untie, or whether he assumed that Angier’s wife could easily free herself from the knot. In any event, after the death of Angier’s wife, the two men go their separate ways, admiring the other’s illusions, but also attempting to damage the other’s professional reputation.
The competition between them intensifies with both men trying to outwit the other and learn the secrets behind the other’s magic tricks. Tragedy strikes Angier again during a trick called the “transported man” when he falls into a hidden giant tank of water from which he cannot escape. Borden watches Angier suffocate and is ultimately accused of murdering him.
The film is full of twists and turns, revealing information about how their magic is performed, and then suggesting that what we see is not really what is happening. One must pay close attention to the machinations of both Angier and Borden to discover the truth.
What is clear is that neither Angier nor Borden play by conventional rules. They both want to be the best magician, and everything in their life is subservient to satisfying the desires of their respective egos. Jewish ethicist Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir in an essay entitled “Ethics and Sportsmanship” writes: “In business, like in sports, keeping score is a legitimate and valuable way of motivating people and inducing them to give their best. But just as sportsmanship in games reminds us that winning is not what’s ultimately important, business ethics reminds us that we don’t win the game of life by accumulating the most ‘monopoly money,’ but rather by doing the most good with our God-given talents.”
In The Prestige, we have two men driven not by doing the best with their God-given talents, but by their personal desire to gain notoriety by creating the best illusion. They have no interest in benefiting society with their skills. All they want to do is provide an “aha” moment to the audience so that their tricks are memorable. For them, family responsibilities are secondary to winning accolades as the best illusionist.
The fates of Angier and Borden remind us that obsessive concern with fame ultimately does not bring us happiness in life. It may for the moment be satisfying, but it does not foster meaningful human connections. The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, reminds us: “He who pursues a name will lose his name.” Yaakov Astor, a veteran Jewish educator, writes: ”Fame is an empty goal; it’s nothing unto itself. The person who gears his every thought and action toward the pursuit of fame cannot grow. Growth is an internal quantity; fame is external, a shell. The person whose entire focus is the external shell is not alive and growing on the inside.” Angier and Borden do not understand this basic truth.