Category Archives: Crime

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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The Accountant (2016), directed by Gavin O’Connor

accountant posterMy son-in-law is a special education educator focusing on autistic students. He helps kids and their families cope with a disability that manifests itself in different ways depending upon many idiosyncratic factors such as age and family background. Therapies that work in one situation may not work in another.

Although we don’t see the actual therapies that work in The Accountant, a thriller about an autistic man who cooks the books for a number of criminal elements, we do see him as a child manifesting autistic behaviors. At the beginning of the film, we visit Harbor Neuroscience Institute in New Hampshire, a place where parents go for help with their autistic children. Christian Wolff, a young boy, is there with his parents to consult with a psychologist.

The father, a military man, sees the problem one way, his mother another. When the therapist discusses the boy’s sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises, the father suggests exposing his son to more light and noise since this will better prepare him for a world that will not accommodate his son’s needs. The mother prefers to leave him at the institute where her son can learn how to cope with excessive light and noise and where he can be in calm environment, learn how to make eye contact with people, and make friends.

Flash forward to the present day in which Christian has a small accounting practice and derives his primary income from serving as an accountant for some of the world’s worst criminals and terrorists. Ray King, director of financial crimes at the Treasury Department, launches an investigation to discover the identity of this man who enables the bad guys to avoid tax liability and to launder large amounts of cash.

It is fascinating to watch Christian behave as a high-functioning autistic. His home is devoid of luxury and there are no decorations. His behavior is strongly ritualized as we see him prepare dinner. He owns only one fork, one knife, and one spoon and every movement reveals an attention to detail. In a storage facility nearby, he has a trailer in which are valuable paintings, cash, multiple passports, and lots of weapons of all types.

Things change for Christian when he accepts a job for a company presumed to be legitimate. Having heard of Christian’s special accounting expertise, the CEO of Living Robotics, a high tech company specializing in advanced prosthetics, hires him to discover a huge financial discrepancy in the business. When he is on the verge of discovering that 61 million is unaccounted for, he is fired. But Christian cannot just abandon his work. His autistic sensibility drives him to finish the job, and the denouement involves lots of twists and turns before we find out the truth.

Although Christian Wolff is a fictional character, he still represents the general profile of a high-functioning autistic individual. His social interaction skills are weak, he has problems with verbal and non-verbal communication, and is at times obsessive about his routines and interests. But he ultimately makes a valuable contribution to the world, albeit in an unconventional way.

Judaism regards the autistic person, or any disabled person, as created by God in His image. The Sages tell us that only one man was created to send a strong message that all men come from the same mold, yet each person is unique as God is unique. Moreover, the Ethics of the Fathers observes that we should not disdain any person, for every person has his hour. Everyone has something to contribute to the totality of society, even the disabled.

Tammy Ruggles, mother of an autistic child, observes that the Passover Seder is an evening of inclusion. There is a section in it known as “the four sons.” Here four different sons are described, one of which is the son who knows not how to ask. The son is emblematic of the autistic child who needs patience and love from a supportive family in order to function.

The Talmud (Eruvin 54b) shares the vignette of Rav Preida, a great sage, who repeated his lesson to his young student 800 times in order to be sure he understood the material. For that effort, God rewarded him with long life and life in the world to come. The story reminds us we have to be patient and be diligent in our efforts to help the autistic child and any child whose disability prevents them learning and integrating into the larger world.

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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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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