Category Archives: Crime

Midnight Run (1988), directed by Martin Brest

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, tells us that we should not judge a person by appearances. The classic text is “do not look at the container but at what is inside.” Yet this is what we often do.

I made a mistake many years ago when I initially judged a high school student to be a problem because his long hair flowed down to his shoulders and a scraggly beard adorned his young face. At the time, his appearance telegraphed a student who did not want to conform, a rebellious teenager who enjoyed breaking conventions and who was not interested in his studies.

In truth, I was 100 percent wrong. It turned out that once I engaged the young man in conversation, he emerged as sweet, witty, and academically serious.

The initial inability to see beyond surface appearances is at the core of Midnight Run, a buddy road comedy about a bounty hunter, Jack Walsh, played by Robert DeNiro, and an accountant, Jonathan Mardukas, played by Charles Grodin, who has embezzled 15 million dollars from the Mob.

Here is the set-up. Mardukas has jumped bail. His Los Angeles bail bondsman, Eddie Moscone, hires bounty hunter Jack Walsh to bring Mardukas back from New York, where he is hiding, to Los Angles by midnight Friday so that he will not forfeit $450,000 in bail money and face bankruptcy. To get the job done, he employs Walsh for $100,000 to bring him in on time.Competing with Walsh to bring in Mardukas is another bounty hunter and the FBI, led by Special Agent Alonzo Mosely. The FBI wants Mardukas because he can provide information about Jimmy Serrano, a mob boss involved in a plethora of illegal activities. Serrano also wants Mardukas, but he wants Mardukas dead so that he cannot testify against him.

Problems begin to occur after Walsh quickly captures Mardukas in Los Angeles. Mardukas is petrified of flying and causes a disturbance on the plane before take-off. The airline refuses to take him, leaving Walsh with the unenviable task of driving cross country with Mardukas to bring him into custody.

Their eventful trip, punctuated by constant life-threatening situations, brings the two adversaries together emotionally. Shared adversity breaks down barriers between them. The outcome: they become friends. Jonathan Mardukas learns why Walsh became a bounty hunter and why he left a post as a Chicago undercover policeman. Jack Walsh discovers why Mardukas stole the money from the mob and what he intended to do with it.

The Torah instructs us to judge our fellow man justly (Leviticus 19:15). This means giving other people the benefit of the doubt and interpreting their actions for the good. Moreover, the Talmud tells us: do not judge another man until we are in his position (Avot 2:4), until we understand the motive for their questionable actions. Jonathan and Jack ultimately do this. They give each other the benefit of the doubt and are not judgmental about the other.

Sara Yoheved Rigler, a Jewish educator, makes some helpful suggestions about how to judge people favorably taken from real-life situations: “Instead of faulting a friend for not calling you back when she said she would, you could think that she may have tried to call me back, but my line was busy, or she may have received an important call just when she was about to dial my number. Instead of faulting your spouse for being late (again!), you could think that I’m not time-challenged like he is. Instead of faulting a repairman for not coming when he said he would (leaving you sitting at home all afternoon waiting), you could think that his previous client may have had a more complicated job than expected, or that when he went to phone me that he’d be late, he couldn’t find my number or his cellphone battery was low.”

When we judge others fairly, Rigler continues, “We cultivate a positive, sympathetic attitude towards others. We do not jump to conclusions. We do not condemn people who may be suffering circumstances far beyond our ken.”

This epiphany of understanding comes to Jonathan and Jack who, through shared adversity, come to like and respect the other, foreshadowing a happy resolution that began as a tumultuous relationship. Midnight Run offers an example of people going beyond stereotypes and viewing people as they really are.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Advertisements

Broken Arrow (1995), directed by John Woo

broken arrowI do not know how to play chess, but it seems to be a mentally engrossing game. One of my sons actually was a chess champion when he played competitively as a member of his high school chess team. From watching him and other students play, it seems clear that to be successful at the game, one must be able to envision the next moves of your adversary. You have to consider not just one move ahead, but many moves ahead to be victorious.

This kind of mental maneuvering takes place between Major Vic Deakins and Captain Riley Hale, two pilots in the United States Air Force who are tasked with transporting two nuclear bombs in a training exercise in the tense thriller, Broken Arrow.

Their flight begins calmly, but once airborne Deakins, on a mission of his own, attempts to kill Hale. The end result: Deakins ejects Hale from the plane and, using parachutes, steals the nuclear warheads with the goal of threatening to detonate them if a huge sum of money is not deposited in Deakin’s Swiss bank account. The title Broken Arrow refers to the code name for lost nuclear weapons.

Hale lands safely, and with the help of Forest Ranger Terry Carmichael, attempts to thwart Deakins’ plans. Deakins and Hale know one another well. As the action progresses, each tries to anticipate the other’s moves. Deakins leads them to red herrings, but Hale sees through the obfuscations. After all their chess-like moves, in which each tries to anticipate the next move of the other, there is a final physical confrontation between Deakins and Hale.

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo writes about the analogy between chess and life. By doing so, he sheds light on the respective strategies of Deakins and Hale and the exhilaration of combat experienced by both of them. Cardozo writes: “The chessboard becomes the world; the pieces are the phenomena of the universe; the rules of the game are the laws of nature; and man roams freely once he applies the rules to such an extent that a whole new world is revealed. But let us never forget: He who knows all the rules is not necessarily a great player. What makes him a formidable opponent is his ability to use these rules to unleash an outburst of creativity, which emerges only because of the game’s unbearable limitations. It is mental torture, but it is the height of beauty as well. It is poetry to the game, as melody is to music — like one gentle brushstroke of Rembrandt on a colorful canvas, making everything look radically different; or like the genius musician playing her Stradivarius, re-creating the whole of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5. It transports the chess player to heaven.”

This poetic description of chess suggests the satisfaction that both Deakins and Hale feel when they have figured out the next move of their adversary. Deakins and Hale engage in a war of the minds, and both savor the combat.

It is fascinating to observe how Deakins and Hale try to outguess the other. A case in point. Law enforcement has to determine where the bomb may be detonated. Deakins plants clues that indicate the location will be in Salt Lake City to the west. In fact, Deakins plans to obliterate Denver to the east. The authorities at first head west to surround Salt Lake City, but then, in an “aha” moment, Hale realizes that Deakins has planted clues that serve as a subterfuge for his true intention, which is to attack Denver.

Broken Arrow is a high caliber action film. It delivers all the fights and explosions that one expects in escapist entertainment, enabling the viewer to enjoy the cathartic release of good triumphing over evil. Along the way, it provides an insight into the strategies of those who want to destroy others. Not only do they want to win the battle, but they may also enjoy intellectually checkmating their opponent.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Mission Impossible – Fallout (2018), directed by Christopher McQuarrie

mission impossible - falloutAn essential challenge in the life of administrators is to decide issues based upon whether something is good for the many or only good for the few. I confronted this often as a school principal. In my early years on the job, I made exceptions to the general rule because I wanted to do what was best for the individual child, and also because I was interested in boosting enrollment for what was then an unknown and untested institution. Having a large enrollment was outwardly a sign of success and it meant more tuition dollars to support the school’s programs.

As I matured in my profession, I made less and less exceptions because every exception undermined the overall policies of the school. Once the enrollment stabilized, I could set higher behavioral and academic standards that, in the long run, made the school stronger educationally.

Ethan Hunt, leader of the Mission Impossible (MI6) team of heroes, faces similar challenges in Mission Impossible – Fallout, the latest installment in what has become one of the great action movie franchises in film history. In the course of his mission, Ethan frequently has to decide whether to save the world or an individual friend, who has time and again saved his life and the lives of others.

Ethan’s task in this story is to recover three plutonium cores that have found their way into the hands of terrorists. When he is about to take possession of the plutonium, he discovers that the villains have captured Luther Stickell, one of the members of Ethan’s group. Ethan has a choice: to take possession of the plutonium, which can be used for atomic weapons to destroy the world, or to save his friend Luther. He opts for the latter, and thus begins a worldwide search to find the plutonium and to eliminate the terrorists. His task takes him to Paris, Berlin, London, and an assortment of exotic locations in which Ethan fights for his life as well as for possession of the plutonium cores.

Mission Impossible is a movie in which we know the outcome. Even If Ethan makes a questionable decision, things will work out okay in the end and the world will be saved. Nonetheless, the film presents the dilemma of making a choice knowing that the result will most likely lead to an imperfect solution.

In The Ethics of the Fathers the Sages ask: “Who is wise?” They respond: “One who sees the future.” In truth, one cannot foresee the future, but one can predict a likely outcome. Rabbi Bernie Fox shares an innovative twist on how the Rabbis of the Talmud viewed a wise man: ”Our Sages did not regard a person as wise simply as a consequence of the accumulation of data. A wise person is an individual who is guided by wisdom. This means that the reality of ideas is as definite to the wise person as input received through the senses. The Sages characterized this quality by referring to seeing the future. The future, although only an idea, is as real as the present that is seen through the senses.”

Ethan Hunt is a wise man and knows the likely outcome of saving his friend rather than rescuing the world; but when it comes to saving human life, especially that of a friend, he is conflicted. He knows terrorists are bent on destroying world order and are prepared to eradicate anyone who stands in their way. In spite of this, Ethan does not abandon his humanity.

In the imaginary world of Mission Impossible – Fallout, Ethan understands the dire consequences of saving his friend over securing the plutonium. We, the audience, know that Ethan will save his friend and also save the world. He will destroy the enemy and, at the same time, affirm his concern for the value of one single life, and that is why we admire him. The Talmud expresses this message, embedded in the mind and heart of Ethan Hunt: “he who saves a single life saves the entire world.”

The Score (2001), directed by Frank Oz

scoreA friend of mine recently told me that, during his senior year at high school, he was caught by his History teacher for plagiarizing a term paper. It turns out that he copied the paper from his sister who, a number of years earlier, had submitted the paper to a different teacher at the same high school and she received an “A.”

Now here is the strange part. The teacher showed my friend the exact place where he discovered the plagiarism. The copied section was a verbatim quotation from the book jacket. Apparently, his sister had plagiarized as well and had gotten away with it.

The incident dramatized for me that to be a successful cheat you have to work at it. You cannot be lazy. You have to devote energy to achieve success as a criminal. This is what transpires in The Score, a thrilling heist caper in which crooks plan meticulously to rob from the Montreal Customs House a precious French scepter that will be sold on the black market for millions of dollars.

Master safecracker Nick Wells wants to retire from his life of crime and devote his time to managing his jazz club. However, he is persuaded to take on one last job due to the entreaties of Max, his longtime fence and friend. The job represents a payoff of four million dollars to Nick, enough money to enable him to forsake his life of crime for good.

The first challenge is to obtain schematics information about the building that houses the scepter. He also needs specific alarm bypass codes so that he can manipulate the alert protocols of the system as he breaks into the building.

The provider of this information is Jack Teller, a young, ambitious thief who poses as an intellectually disabled member of the maintenance staff to get access to the security information. The relationship between Jack and Nick is tense and filled with mistrust. However, since the payoff is great, they submerge egos in their quest for success in stealing the scepter. Nonetheless, Nick is concerned about Jack and excoriates him: “You’re smart, talented and you know a few things but talent means nothing in this game if you don’t make the right choices. There are plenty of talented people that never see the light of day anymore. This whole thing takes discipline because it’s one big long shot. And if you don’t have the discipline to stay away from the stupid move, then one day you will go down. It’s inevitable.”

Soon after seeing The Score, I read the outstanding biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe entitled, Rebbe, authored by Joseph Telushkin, in which he says that the Rebbe felt that ethical lessons could be learned from the world of business, from science, from sports, and even from thieves. In the book he has a section entitled “Learning from a Thief.” He quotes the saintly Rab Zusha who learned an approach to Divine service from observing the work ethic of a thief. He writes that a thief is modest, is prepared to endanger himself, labors with great exertion, works quickly, exhibits trust and hope, and does not give up after initial failure. The same qualities can be utilized for divine service, for living a holy life.

It is the attention to detail that characterizes the successful thief, and it is the attention to detail that is needed to be a successful Jew. The ideal Jew is modest and does not want to be noticed for what he does. He is prepared to encounter some risk in order to do a good deed. He labors hard to do the will of God, and he works with alacrity when the situation requires speed and timeliness. He is optimistic about the future, and does not give up hope even when things do not go his way. He understands that he has to fail forward after making mistakes, and there is always time for a mid-course correction.

The Score presents nefarious characters on the margins of society, but we can learn much from their work ethic and their careful attention to detail in accomplishing their unsavory ends. The Score reminds us that we can sometimes use the meticulous methods of the thief to accomplish worthwhile and holy goals.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com. 

The Prestige (2006), directed by Christopher Nolan

prestigeWhen 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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Baby Driver (2017), directed by Edgar Wright

 baby driverI remember hearing about the incident. I learned that two young boys were playing around with each other and one of them had a stick with a nail on the end of it. In the course of their “playing around,” the boy with the stick hit the other child in the eye. Blood gushed out and the boy was in great pain.

It was an accident. The boy with the stick never meant to do harm, but he did. The victim lost one of his eyes; but, thankfully, he was a boy of great inner strength and he went on to lead a relatively normal life and had professional success as a dentist as an adult.

From the Jewish perspective, the act of taking out the eye of another child may have been unintentional, but there is culpability. The fact that one does not intend to do harm does not free him from Divine accountability.

Baby, the central character in Baby Driver, an over-the-top heist film with an adrenalin rush and a strong musical motif, does some terrible things. Although he does not intend to hurt people either physically or financially, he does, and that makes him accountable to law enforcement authorities.

The story begins as Baby drives a getaway car for three robbers who rob a bank. His driving is extraordinary and he is able to evade the police chasing them. As he drives, he listens to loud music on his iPod. We learn that as a child he had an accident that left him with tinnitus, a constant humming in his ear, and listening to loud music drowns out the humming. Moreover, it inspires his driving skills.

Baby is a getaway driver because he owes money to Doc, a crime boss. It is Baby’s intention to quit the life of crime as soon as his debt to Doc is paid. The problem is that Doc needs Baby to continue driving for other heists he has planned.

When Doc threatens Baby with possible harm to Debora, Baby’s girlfriend, he is compelled to drive even though he knows that the thieves he is working with have no scruples and will murder anyone who gets in their way.

The next heist goes south when Bats, one of the robbers, kills a security guard. Baby, unnerved by Bat’s brutal behavior, figures out a way to leave his unsavory cohorts, but an intense cat and mouse game ensues between them and Baby, ending in explosive violence.

The police also pursue Baby and there is a moment of reckoning. Will Baby surrender to them in the hope that the authorities will understand that his sins were unintentional or will he continue to run?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the traditional Jewish approach to unintentional sin: “Unintentional sins stand midway between intentional sins (where you knew what you were doing was wrong) and involuntary action (ones, where you were not acting freely at all: it was a reflex action, or someone was pointing a gun at your head).” Such is the dilemma of Baby.

Yet, in Jewish law, even unintentional sins require atonement. Why? Rabbi Sacks, quoting several Jewish sages offers some answers. For example, Nachmanides, a medieval scholar, opines: “Sin, even without intention, defiles.” Moreover, “sins committed unwittingly produce a stain on our souls and constitute a blemish in it, and the soul is only worthy to be received by its Creator when it is pure of all sin.” A person cannot simply say, “I did not mean it” and expect God to forgive him. There has to be genuine contrition if there is to be forgiveness from on High.

Once he is apprehended, Baby’s response reflects his mature understanding that there must be consequences for a life of crime, even if all the bad stuff was not his fault. This recognition of past mistakes and accepting responsibility for them paves the way for a bright future in which his mistakes are forgiven. Baby Driver’s denouement is a reminder of the power of atonement and the corresponding power of forgiveness.

 

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Wizard of Lies (2017), directed by Barry Levinson

wizard of liesA number of years ago, I engaged a contractor to build an addition onto my home. Over the course of several months, he would ask me for an advance on his fee because he needed to buy supplies and pay his workers. I had no experience dealing with contractors and assumed everyone was honest, so whenever he asked for money I gave it to him.

And then one day when the addition was only half-completed, he disappeared. The shock of finding out that the man whom I had hired and trusted was a sociopath who, in essence, stole my money was deeply unsettling. It took some time before my wife and I came to terms with this financial debacle. It was an unnerving experience; and it forever changed the way I did business with home improvement contractors.

The moment of discovering that I lost a large amount of money that could not be recovered, when I felt an emptiness in the pit of my stomach, is a feeling shared by the victims of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, which is the subject of The Wizard of Lies. The film chronicles the events that led to the incarceration of Madoff after bilking billions of dollars from trusting investors.

What strikes the viewer is that Madoff never blames himself for destroying the lives of so many investors who trusted him. Among those investors were Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel and former LA Dodger pitching great Sandy Koufax.

The film plays like a Shakespearean tragedy. Madoff’s tragic flaw was his lack of moral conscience, which led to his hurting not only innocent investors but his own family as well. One son committed suicide and the other died of cancer several years after Madoff’s sentencing. His wife, Ruth, did not just lose her sons. She also lost her affluent lifestyle and now lives in Florida with only her social security check supporting her.

Although Madoff pleaded guilty to all charges against him, he never seems to grasp the gravity of his crimes. He thinks that his investors should have diversified their financial portfolios rather than place their entire savings with him. He considers them foolish and greedy.

I write this review during the Ten Days of Repentance before the holy day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In Hebrew, the word for repentance is teshuva, which literally means return. It is the day when we return to God and to our best selves. The Sages tell us that the day of Yom Kippur atones for sins between man and God, but not for sins between man and man. Gaining atonement for those sins requires mending the past, asking for forgiveness from one’s fellow man and restoring fractured relationships.

Repentance in its classic Jewish understanding specifically mandates acknowledging one’s mistake and truly regretting it, confessing it before God, and resolving not to commit the same mistake in the future. It is not a perfunctory ritual. It requires asking for forgiveness more than once if that is what is needed to restore a broken relationship. Jewish law even mentions the procedure to ask for forgiveness from someone no longer alive. It involves going to the cemetery with a group of men and asking for forgiveness at the gravesite.

Bernie Madoff is a sociopath, lacking empathy for those he wronged. In the traditional Jewish sense, he has not “returned” from his life of crime because he blames others for allowing the consequences of his unethical behavior to go undetected for so long a time. Indeed, the failure of federal and state oversight institutions did contribute to his crimes.

In the final analysis, the wizard of lies, Bernie Madoff, believed his own charisma and magical manipulation of money would keep him immune to discovery. His insincere repentance and lack of wholehearted recognition of his sins provides a negative role model for modern times.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

%d bloggers like this: