Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017), directed by Dan Gilroy

Unbeknownst to me, a dear friend was involved in selling drugs. He was donating some of his profits to the school of which I was principal, trying to assuage his conscience for his criminal behavior. My friend was caught and spent several years in prison. For him, incarceration was a wake-up call; and when I visited him, I saw that he resolved not to let his moral lapse define him for the rest of his life. He was contrite, and realized that he could redeem himself by leading an ethical life and performing good deeds.

For Roman J. Israel, rectifying a wrong is more complicated. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a dramatic thriller about an attorney who makes a decision that undercuts everything he stands for and creates an excruciating dilemma for himself.

Attorney Roman J. Israel is an eccentric person. He lives alone, listens to classic jazz through antiquated headphones, and eats lots of peanut butter sandwiches. When he speaks, he often says things that are inappropriate and people tend to shun him. However, he has an amazing memory and inquiring intellect, which enables him to do extraordinary research and recall legal cases of many years past. He also possesses a strong moral sense of what a just society should look like. This sensibility animates his intense and comprehensive legal work for his employer, William Jackson, the firm’s owner and a well-respected law professor.

Roman’s life suddenly changes when William Jackson suffers a sudden heart attack. Now Roman has to move from the private confines of the law office to the public courtroom to plead on behalf of his clients.

He is instructed to simply ask for continuances, but Roman, motivated by a desire for justice, lobbies for lower fines and argues for his clients to be tried for lesser offences. The judge, irritated by Roman’s challenging and combative remarks, finds him in contempt of court. All this leads to a dramatic confrontation with Jackson’s daughter, who apprises him of the precarious financial state of the firm and informs him that the remaining cases and subsequent closing of the firm will be handled by George Pierce, another attorney. The end result: Roman is out of a job.

To eke out a living, Roman tries to revive his practice in the civil rights arena, but, because of his age, he is perceived as being out of touch with the contemporary civil rights movement. George Pierce comes to the rescue and hires Roman, recognizing his past experience in the litigation of social justice cases. Roman, not used to working in an office where money flows freely, has trouble finding his niche, but he does. Problems surface, however, when, in a moment of ethical weakness, he loses his moral compass and makes a decision that has catastrophic implications for his career.

Roman intellectually and emotionally comes to terms with his ethical lapse and focuses on the positive: “Each of us is better than the worst thing we ever did.” In a moment of self-revelation, he says: “We are formed of frailty and error. Let us pardon reciprocally each other’s follies. That is the first law of nature.” He acknowledges his crime and observes: “The only thing left is forgiveness and I grant that to myself. An act doesn’t make the person guilty unless the mind is guilty as well.”

The film raises an important question: when a person commits a sin, can he be forgiven? Jewish tradition answers with a resounding yes. Rabbi Yitzchak Greenberg offers a nuanced perspective on this matter: “I am very resistant to the idea of any sin being beyond forgiveness. I would like to think that given God’s loving nature and compassion for all of God’s creatures (Psalms 145:9), no bad action is beyond being overcome by God’s infinite goodness. However, in sins between one human being and another, the Talmud says that God won’t forgive unless/until the sinner regrets and repents, returns what was stolen or damaged and wins forgiveness from the victim. For murder, there can be no forgiveness, because the victim cannot be made whole or asked for forgiveness.”

Roman J. Israel Esq. deals with the complexities and consequences of making decisions in morally ambiguous situations. The outcome of the story reminds us that it is never too late to do the right thing.

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