Category Archives: Crime

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, not only lost 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.

Advertisements

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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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.

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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

%d bloggers like this: