Category Archives: Crime

Breach (2007), directed by Billy Ray

breach posterIn the course of my career, I have occasionally met people who are morally inconsistent. One example comes to mind. He was a synagogue attendee and very charitable towards the institutions I represented, but he gained his wealth by selling drugs, a fact I only learned some time after my friend was incarcerated. Jewish law is very clear: you cannot accomplish a good deed by committing an immoral action. However, in the woof and warp of daily life, many people make ethical compromises to justify an affluent lifestyle and the good deeds that one performs through charitable giving.

Breach, a political thriller based on the true story of Robert Hanssen, describes the banality and paradoxical nature of a man who counts the rosary every day and at the same time betrays the country for which he works.

The story begins as Eric O’Neill, a young FBI employee, is recruited to work undercover as a personal assistant to Robert Hanssen, a 56-year-old veteran FBI agent, who is suspected of giving highly classified information to the Russians, even causing the death of several agents. Their relationship is cool, but over time, Hanssen warms to Eric and sees himself as Eric’s friend and mentor. Moreover, Hanssen is a devout Catholic and encourages Eric to reconnect to the Church. His behavior in the public and private spheres is conflicting and complex, but that is the nature of many people living on the edge of morality and sin.

Although the FBI has enough evidence to send Hanssen to prison, they prefer to catch him in the middle of an act of espionage. In that way, they can use the threat of the death penalty for treason to motivate him to reveal the information he has given to the Russians. They charge Eric with facilitating the sting. A cat and mouse game ensues as Eric tries to lure Hanssen into making a mistake worthy of a major arrest. Even though we know at the outset that Hanssen will be caught and convicted of espionage, and serve life imprisonment for his treason against the state, we still watch with fascination as Eric works to find evidence to imprison him for a long period of time.

A subplot of Breach is Eric’s relationship with his wife, Juliana. Eric is sworn to secrecy, so all Juliana sees is her husband under stress and acting in strange ways. Their marriage is tested when Eric cannot freely communicate with her and share his work with her.

Emuna Braverman, a Jewish educator, in a thoughtful article on the importance of husband-wife communication in marriage cites the Chazon Ish, a revered Jewish scholar, who writes: “Treat your wife as a left hand protecting the right one … and not an independent limb.” What this refers to is the Talmudic notion that the body of the husband and wife are joined metaphorically. It is a symbiotic relationship in which one nourishes and supports the other. For that ideal to be fulfilled, spouses must talk to one another and actively listen to each other. In spite of provocations, Eric and Juliana happily do listen to one another and overcome the challenges of the present moment.

Breach is a brainy thriller. There are no car chases, explosions, or fight scenes. It is a well-painted portrait of a complex man willing to sacrifice his country to satisfy his own needs. What specifically those needs were remains unclear. Perhaps money was his key motivation or perhaps he was motivated by his own ego, a desire on his part to show how flawed was the intelligence community of the United States. No matter what his motivation, his story reminds us that even outwardly good people sometimes do very bad things.

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Mr. Holmes (2015), directed by Bill Condon

mr-holmes-posterAs a child, I often read Classic Comics, which presented classic novels in cartoons. I remember reading one of the Sherlock Holmes novels in this format and being fascinated by Holmes’s ability to focus on the details of a case and ignoring extraneous details.

One particular interchange between him and his friend Watson surprised me and I still recall it many years later. The conversation revealed that Holmes did not know that the earth revolved around the sun. Although it was a common fact known to everybody in his day and age, for Holmes the fact was irrelevant. I thought it was cool that such a brilliant detective could be so ignorant about general knowledge, and only remember information that was germane to the case he was working on, nothing else.

Mr. Holmes, a fascinating look at Sherlock Holmes during his senior years, hinges on Holmes’ ability to remember things, not an easy task for him at 93 years old. The story begins in 1947 when Holmes is living in a Sussex farmhouse with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, and her son, Roger with whom he forms a fatherly friendship. Roger is both inquisitive and intelligent and Holmes senses in him a kindred spirit.

The film opens as Holmes returns from a trip to Japan. He has difficulty remembering the details of the case he went there to solve. Gradually, however, through his discussions with Roger who stimulates his thinking, Holmes begins to recalls details of the case in Japan as well as a case that occurred thirty years earlier that involved a woman who committed suicide.

In the present, Holmes’ health deteriorates and Mrs. Munro finds taking care of him more onerous. She also does not like the intense friendship that her son, Roger, has developed for him, a friendship that alienates Roger from her, nurturing in him an independent and at times condescending spirit. Tension develops between mother and son until a crisis changes things for Holmes, Mrs. Munro, and her son.

The cultivation of memory, which has been a focus of Holmes’ entire professional life, is important in Jewish law and tradition. It is critical in the way we observe our holy days, which require us not only to remember the past but to relive it. For example, we do not just remember the Exodus from Egypt, but we eat the bread of affliction, the matzah, and the bitter herbs. We also experience the transition to freedom by drinking four cups of wine and reclining on cushions at certain points in the Passover seder, the archetypal meal of the holiday.

Moreover, on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, a commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples, we do not just recall the catastrophe. On that day, we fast and sit on low stools, and lament as if the tragedy were only yesterday. On the festival of Tabernacles, which commemorates the journey in the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land, we move into fragile huts covered with greenery to re-experience a time when we felt totally dependent on God’s kindness and protection.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, states that we should make an effort to retain what we have learned in the past. We are required not to forget, to keep our memories alive and relevant to the present.

Mr. Holmes depicts a man trying to retain his memory, for the past animates his present. He desires to remember the old cases, many of which taught him valuable life lessons. He is not just remembering because he wants to preserve information; he is remembering because through memory he can recreate his past life and transmit some of the wisdom he has gleaned to future generations. For him and for all men, memory links the generations.

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99 Homes (2014), directed by Ramin Bahrani

ninety-nine-homes-posterA family member recently bought a foreclosure home in Florida. A foreclosure is a home owned by the bank because of the failure of the owner to pay his mortgage. From a distance, it looks great for the new purchaser who can acquire a home at a very favorable price; but, up close, a foreclosure has a dark side and can signify a very human tragedy. This is depicted in 99 Homes, an unsettling look at the consequences of foreclosure on decent people who, for a variety of reasons, can’t make ends meet.

The film opens as single father Dennis Nash has just been released from his construction job. His finances are in disarray and, as a result, he, together with his son Conner and his mother Lynn, are evicted from their Orlando, Florida home. In charge of the eviction is realtor Rick Carver who works with the police to enforce the eviction. When Nash pleads for more time to get the financing for his home which has been in the family for generations, Carver coldly tells him: “Don’t get emotional over real estate.”

Dennis is compelled to move to a shabby motel where he can provide at least some measure of protection for his mother and son. When he goes to Carver’s office to reclaim tools that were stolen from him by Carver’s workers, he impresses Carver with his willingness to act forcefully to retrieve them. Carver then decides to hire Dennis as a repairman for his properties.

Dennis, desperately needing the money, accepts the offer. Over time, however, Rick charges Dennis with helping with evictions, and so Dennis becomes a willing accomplice to all the nefarious schemes of Carver, which skirt the law and exploit the situation of homeowners struggling mightily to keep their houses.

As Dennis’ income grows, his conscience troubles him. He knows that he is becoming rich at the expense of those less fortunate who do not have the means to contest the evictions in court. His moral crisis comes to a head when Dennis has to evict a friend of his. Much is at stake.

The eviction of a large number of property owners in a particular neighborhood will give Carver access to lots of real estate deals totaling millions of dollars. But there is a dilemma for Dennis: he must deliver a false document to the court to substantiate Carver’s legal shenanigans to deprive people of getting justice in a court of law.

When we think of foreclosures, we first surmise that the people whose homes are foreclosed have been financially irresponsible. They are simply reaping the negative consequences of what they have sown over the years. However, the Talmud cautions us “not to judge people until you are standing in their place.” One cannot fully understand the trauma of losing a home or the reasons why one loses a home unless that person has experienced a similar crisis.

Moreover, the Ethics of the Fathers states: “The world is founded on loving kindness.” This means that in all of our interactions with people, we should be kind and empathetic. Even if we have to be the bearer of ill tidings, we should fulfill our mission with sensitivity and compassion. Dennis tries to do this, but Carver is only interested in the final financial outcome of a negotiation; inwardly, he does not care who he hurts. His cold, heartless demeanor is encapsulated in a speech he gives to Dennis: “Don’t be soft. America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners. By rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.”

99 Homes is not an easy movie to watch as we observe simple folk coming face to face with financial, and in some cases emotional, ruin. It is a cautionary tale reminding us to be honest, to be kind, and never to trample on the rights of others.

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The Wrong Man (1956), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

wrong-man-posterWhen I taught Hamlet some years ago to a high school class in Atlanta, a student voiced surprise that Ophelia, a woman deeply in love with Hamlet, committed suicide. It prompted a class discussion about how friends experience great pain when they see a loved one suffering.

Such is the case of Rose Balestero in The Wrong Man directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who informs us at the beginning of the film that everything we are about to see is true.

Rose is the wife of Manny Balestero, a musician in the prestigious Stork Club in New York City. He enjoys his work, but is consistently in debt because of his small paycheck. When his wife needs money to have her wisdom teeth extracted, he goes to a life insurance company to borrow money against his wife’s policy. It is here that things fall apart. Several office workers identify Manny as the thief who robbed the life insurance company twice before. They summon the police and Manny is arrested on suspicion of robbery. In truth, their identification of Manny is faulty, but the witnesses claim they are sure that he is the robber.

Although the witnesses are not reliable, they cast aspersions on Manny. There is great emotional upheaval in the life of his family when Manny is incarcerated. Sadly, Rose eventually falls into deep depression because of the stress her husband is enduring. She feels his emotional pain so much that it causes her to lose touch with reality. Although Manny is eventually exonerated of the crime when the real perpetrator of the robbery is apprehended and clearly identified, Rose’s depression lingers for a number of years before she mentally recovers.

Having empathy for another human being is a classic Jewish sensibility, especially when dealing with the relationship between spouses. A great twentieth century sage and doer of good deeds, Rabbi Aryeh Levine, was known to be an exemplar of a person who truly cared about others and totally identified with their pain.

The Talmud tells us to love one’s wife as himself and honor and respect her more than himself. When Rabbi Levine’s wife felt pain her leg, they went to the doctor together. When the physician asked, “what can I do for you,” the rabbi responded: “my wife’s foot is hurting us.” He fully identified with his wife’s suffering because he viewed her as part of him. Our tradition tells us that a man’s wife is like part of his own body, and, therefore, husband and wife feel the distress of the other.

Empathy does not only relate to the relationship of one spouse to another. It is even a requirement in Jewish jurisprudence. Maimonides writes that only a person who has children can be appointed to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, in order to insure a proper judgment. Maimonides felt that a judge must have the perspective of a parent, combining justice and mercy, if he is to judge wisely and compassionately.

Mendel Kalmenson, in an article on friendship, quotes the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on what it means to be empathetic and a good friend: “A friend is someone in whose presence you can think aloud without worrying about being taken advantage of. A friend is someone who suffers with you when you are in pain and rejoices in your joy. A friend is someone who looks out for you, and always has your best interests in mind. In fact, a true friend is like an extension of yourself.” The Sages inform us that spouses are one’s best friends. Clearly Rose Balestero is her husband’s best friend for she acutely feels his pain.

Furthermore, Kalmenson observes: “Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling bad for someone else; empathy is feeling bad with someone else.” Rose Balestero feels the pain of Manny, her husband, and it is overwhelming.

Empathy is good when it does not overwhelm us. If we can feel the anguish of loved ones, and still maintain our emotional equilibrium, then ultimately, we will feel their joy.

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The Dancer Upstairs (2002), directed by John Malkovich

the dancer upstairs posterTerrorism is very much a part of the world’s landscape at this point in history. Terrorist attacks occur not only in Israel, but in the United States, France, and Belgium among other countries. The world is a scary place, and many are trying to figure out what is the intellectual and emotional appeal of this aberrant behavior, which destabilizes the world. The Dancer Upstairs is a quiet, thoughtful, and tense film that gives us some understanding of the philosophical and practical motives that drive terrorists in the modern world.

Detective Augustin Rejas searches for a mysterious President Ezekiel, who is behind a series of terrorist acts committed by the have-nots against the corrupt government of an unnamed Latin America government. Ezekiel’s methods are brutal and many innocents die. Although no manifesto for revolution is written, it is clear that Ezekiel believes that anarchy will force the creation of a new government free of corruption and be more responsive to the needs of the people.

Rejas himself was a victim of the Marxist government that confiscated his father’s coffee farm, but he chose to find another career instead of challenging the regime. Now his task as a police officer is to find the terrorist Ezekiel and bring him to justice. This takes years of painstaking police work as his team slowly unravels the mystery of Ezekiel and his extremist followers, which include highly impressionable children whom he enlists as surrogate assassins for his cause.

Random executions, some committed by children and some by adults, perpetrated over several years rattle the state and create fear in the citizens, and this is exactly what Ezekiel wants to do. To combat the wave of terror that grows in intensity over time, the government resorts to the army to keep order; but this only drives the people away from the government, which they already see as corrupt.

As Rejas builds his case, we see that Ezekiel is a terrorist with mixed motivations. He stages parties for his supporters and takes sexual advantage of willing acolytes. For him, revolution is not just political; it is a cover for his base instincts as well. Regrettably his followers do not see his dark side, only his political charisma.

Ezekiel does not publicly reveal what drives him to wreak havoc on the nation’s institutions and innocent bystanders. In clandestine settings, he uses words to provoke the emotions of the downtrodden; not to appeal to their reason. His audience primarily consists of Marxist intellectuals, impressionable young women, and local Indians who are convinced that violence is necessary in order to liberate their country from a corrupt military regime.

In stark contrast to the terrorist leader Ezekiel is the Jewish notion of a prophet-leader. Here, the prophet-leader must be virtuous. Maimonides, the great medieval sage, states that the prophet-leader must also be very wise and never be overcome by natural desires. He must see the big picture and evaluate situations from the aspect of eternity, for God is at the center of his emotional and moral universe.

The Dancer Upstairs gives us an insight into the multitude of motives in the mind of a terrorist who commits evil not only for ideological reasons, but also to gain personal advantages. Additionally, it unsettles us by its portrayal of the ease with which an evil man can convert the naive into willing accomplices to his morally abhorrent behaviors.

Detective Rejas, through patient analysis, uncovers the contradictions that exist in the psyche of a vicious madman who wants to destabilize society through anarchic means. The film, a cautionary lesson to free men who want to improve society, reminds us that we need to evaluate the methods of any change agent and consider the cost in human suffering that may be required to bring about one’s social goals.

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Mission: Impossible III (2006), directed by J.J. Abrams

mission impossible IIII began my doctoral studies in English in Atlanta in 1972. It was intended to be a 5-year program, but it took much longer because I was busy with earning a living and rearing a young family. I finally received my PhD in 1984, twelve years after I started.

At one point, the school wanted me to leave the program because of my slow progress; but my advisor, Dr. William Sessions, a Milton scholar, intervened and asked them to allow me to continue. He knew I was a serious and capable student and that only the pressures of earning a living and raising a family were preventing me from moving through the program quickly. It was Dr. Sessions who found a way to remove the interference that was blocking my way to academic success. He was a person who never allowed me to give up.

Never giving up is precisely what Ethan Hunt does in the tense thriller Mission Impossible III. Ethan is a retired secret service operative working for IMF, a government organization tasked with high priority missions that are critical to national security. At his engagement party, he is summoned by Operations Director Musgrave to rescue Agent Lindsey Ferris, Ethan’s special forces protégé, who has been captured in Germany by Owen Davian, a black market arms dealer. The rescue is successful, but Lindsey dies when an explosive planted in her head detonates.

Ethan then decides to go directly after Davian, who is scheduled to appear in Vatican City where a deal involving the transfer of an unknown “rabbit’s foot” is in progress. In an elaborate ruse, Ethan and his team capture Davian. When Davian tells Ethan that he will brutally slay Ethan’s wife Julia when he has the opportunity, Ethan opens a bay on the plane and almost throws him out.

Regrettably for Ethan, Davian escapes en route to prison and now his threat becomes real. Fearing for his wife Julia, Ethan tries to protect her from Davian’s men, but he arrives too late to prevent her kidnapping.

Davian contacts Ethan and tells him to retrieve the “rabbit’s foot” in 48 hours or he will kill his wife. Ethan travels to Shanghai to locate and steal the rabbit’s foot from its current owner. At each step of the way, Ethan encounters what seem to be insurmountable obstacles, yet he is never deterred. From the first challenge to capture Davian in Vatican City, which has extremely heavy security systems in place, to the final confrontation with him in Shanghai, Ethan always finds a way to approach a problem or imminent threat and succeed. He never gives up. He lives in a treacherous reality, but never succumbs to pessimism.

The history of the Jews in many ways is a history of never giving up in the face of insurmountable challenges. The Chanukah holiday commemorates a festival when a superior military force wanted to defeat the Jews; but the Maccabees, inspired by their faith in God, led the Jews to military triumph. The key to their success was never giving up. The holiday of Purim, featuring the heroics of Ether and Mordechai, also celebrates a similar victory where the few triumph over the many.

Perhaps the most vivid example of not giving up and prevailing against impossible odds is the action of Nachshon, the son of Aminadav, who jumped into the Red Sea before it split, believing that somehow he would survive. The message: miracles can happen but only after we do our part to implement a solution. Ultimately, the outcome is in God’s hands.

To transform the unthinkable dream into a reality, we need a combination of confident preparation for the challenge we face and an overriding belief that God will help us achieve our goals. David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, expressed this idea poetically when he said: “in Israel in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”

Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible III lives by that credo. He does not give up. Obstacles do not limit him because he knows that as long as there is life, there is the possibility of achieving the seemingly impossible.

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Sicario (2015), directed by Denis Villeneuve

sicario posterI live in Israel where I often read about the moral dilemmas faced by the Israel Defense Forces as they fight terror that threatens the fabric of daily life. There are no simple answers to these complex questions. I reflected on this reality as I watched Sicario, a tense and unsettling look on law enforcement in America as it tries to control illegal drug trafficking in Mexico, a drug trade that infiltrates the southern border of the United States.

The story begins with an FBI SWAT raid of a home used by Mexican drug cartel kidnappers. Agent Kate Macer and her partner Reggie Wayne discover dozens of dead bodies, presumably executed by drug dealers. Kate’s boss thinks highly of her and recommends that she participate in a special task force put together by the Defense Department and the CIA to ferret out the people who caused these horrific murders.

The leaders of the team are CIA agent Matt Graver and his partner Alejandro Gillick, who are joined by U.S. Marshals and an elite cohort of Delta Force soldiers. Their target is Manuel Diaz, one of the major players in the drug cartel operation. As the mission progresses, Kate wonders what the true purpose of the mission is. Gradually she learns that Diaz is only important for his connection to the drug lord Fausto Alarcon.

In order to reach him, many may die. CIA agent Graver believes that collateral damage is worth it if they achieve the goal of disrupting the flow of drugs into America. Kate sees it as using immoral means to attain worthy goals. She is uncomfortable with the mission, which expects her to compromise truth in order to attain the desired results.

Jewish tradition asks us to consider the moral calculus before embarking on a mission that involves compromising one’s integrity. The litmus test is whether the action fits within the parameters of the Torah and Jewish Talmudic law, which offers general guidelines as to how to deal with these very thorny moral questions.

In an article on battlefield ethics based on sources in the Talmud and Codes of Jewish Law, Rabbi Michael Broyde outlines the conditions that allow for a theoretical “license to kill.” One may not kill an innocent third party to save someone’s life. One may not compel a person to risk his life to save another. One may not kill a person after he has already committed an evil act, and one may not use more force than is minimally needed. Moreover, before waging battle, one must first try to establish peace. Of utmost importance is killing only combatants, not innocent people. They must be given a chance to leave the battle theater. Once these conditions are met, then one has a theoretical “license to kill.”

When one considers these givens of Jewish tradition as guidelines for proper conduct, we see that the good guys in Sicario operate in morally ambiguous terrain. It is not easy to live in this environment, which continually tests our sense of right and wrong.

Understanding this reality, Alejandro advises the morally sensitive Kate to leave: “You should move to a small town, someplace where the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.”

Sicario is not a typical action flick, although it has its share of tense and visceral action scenes. The film also makes us think about the complexity of law enforcement in an environment where there is no respect for the law. There are no easy answers for someone with a conscience. Kate Macer is thrown into chaotic universe with no moral center, and it unnerves her. Watching Sicario unnerves us as well.

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