I often get the question which are my favorite JFK research books. The answer always depends upon on what the goal is. So I will put them into sections below.
FIrst of all, read Mae Brussell. And listen to her shows. Be greedy. You want to start understanding the American republic, she left you a treasure trove of information to start with. You can start with The Essential Mae Brussell.
Second, you can check out Edwin Black's brilliant article, "The Chicago Plot." This is the best single reason I am lukewarm to all the LBJ-is-the-mastermind type books.
If you are starting fresh, these are great places to start: Accessories After the Fact by Sylvia Meagher, False Mystery by Vince Salandria, JFK and the Unspeakable by Jim Douglass, Into the Nightmare by Joe McBride, Destiny Betrayed (2nd edition) by Jim DiEugenio, The Last Investigation by Gaeton Fonzi, Understanding Special Operations by Dave Ratcliffe, and The Devil's Chessboard by David Talbot.
You could also start with - ahem - my zine, An Intro to the JFK Assassination.
Also recommended: Reclaiming Parkland by Jim DiEugenio, Presumed Guilty by Howard Rothman, History Will Not Absolve Us by Marty Schotz, On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison, The Man Who Knew Too Much (Lachy Hulme edition) by Dick Russell, Breach of Trust by Gerald McKnight, The Oswald Affair by Leo Sauvage, Survivor's Guilt and The Not-So-Secret Service by Vince Palamara, The Echo from Dealey Plaza by Abraham Bolden, Deep Politics and the Death of JFK by Peter Dale Scott, The Killing of a President & The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald by Robert Groden, Oswald: Assassin or Fall Guy? by Joachim Joesten, The Assassinations by DiEugenio and Lisa Pease, Dirty Truths by Michael Parenti, JFK the Book of the Film, by Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar, The Secret Team and JFK by Fletcher Prouty, Spy Saga by Phil Melanson, and The Zapruder Film by David Wrone.
Recommended, but not as your first JFK book: Harvey & Lee, by John Armstrong. Anything by Harold Weisberg, whose writing style leaves something to be desired although his books have great information. If you get into Weisberg, I actually recommend starting with Case Open, which flows fairly well. All of the Penn Jones Forgive My Grief books, although he is much beloved by me. Assassination Science and Murder in Dealey Plaza, edited by Jim Fetzer, both have fine essays in them - especially by David Mantik and Vince Palamara - but Fetzer has since gone off the deep end, so I can't use these books for citation and don't recommend them to an unseasoned researcher.
Gee, what about these famous books?: I don't really recommend Mark Lane until you've read some other, better books. If you want to know why, you can hear this interview with me I did on the Midnight Writer News show. Same with Tink Thompson's Six Seconds in Dallas, despite some of his good work in that book. He undermines much of his own book in the final passages and has later taken actions that are extremely suspect. John Newman's first book JFK and Vietnam is worthwhile, but be careful. Also be very careful with anything he wrote after that; I'll let Vince Salandria explain why.
Read this instead of that: Anthony Summers wrote a pretty good book called Conspiracy, and then twenty years later he rewrote it and watered it down and called it Not in My Lifetime. Read the first version.
Good books that aren't assassination books per se: Thy Will Be Done, by Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett, and all of the Doug Valentine books, especially The Strength of the Pack and The CIA as Organized Crime.
Your mileage may vary: Family of Secrets by Russ Baker, Mary's Mosaic by Peter Janney, Dr. Mary's Monkey by Ed Haslam, Our Man in Mexico by Jefferson Morley, Crossfire by Jim Marrs, Coup De'tat in America by Weberman & Canfield, anything by Joan Mellen or Walt Brown.
The guy I kind of like that most researchers don't: Harrison Livingstone either co-wrote or stole High Treason with Bob Groden (depending on who you ask) and then also wrote several other books, including High Treason 2 and Killing the Truth. I personally find Killing the Truth very entertaining and often hilarious in his observations about other researchers, particularly David Lifton. But I don't cite the research, no.
Disinfo but kind of interesting: The Torbitt Document, Farewell America by James Hepburn.
Disinfo: Reclaiming History, by Vincent Bugliosi, Case Closed by Gerald Posner, Best Evidence by David Lifton, Contract on Amerca by David Scheim, Inquest by Edward Epstein, False Witness by Patricia MacMillan, JFK the Man and the Myth by Victor Lasky, A Cruel and Shocking Act by Philip Shenon, The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh, all of the Noam Chomsky output on the subject, any book by Dale Meyers or John MacAdams, any book that relies on Judith Exner as a source for anything that's expected to be true. I also think Larry Hancock is disinfo, which will shock some, but take a look at the two books he cowrote about MLK.
I published 'em, so take it with a grain of salt, but these are both essential or I wouldn't have published 'em: Judge for Yourself by John Judge and The Deep State in the Heart of Texas by Richard Bartholomew.
The following is a text conversation I had with Sheldon Rampton on Facebook. I made no edits except removing other comments in the thread. It ended up being an interesting - and instructive, I think - exchange about where mainstream liberals draw the line as far as "conspiracy theory." I should say that I am still a big fan of his books, especially Toxic Sludge is Good for You and Trust Us, We're Experts! Sheldon first began saying that he thought conspiracy theories and religious devotion were similar in that both were a product of irrational thinking (or, to use his precise words, "distorted thinking.") Then he gave the usual critique of conspiracy theories being pattern-recognition "taken too far.") So I responded. In the end, he asked me a series of questions and, not receiving the answers I believe he was looking for, ended the thread.
SHELDON RAMPTON: Actually, we've all witnessed conspiracies. Most crimes involve a conspiracy of some kind, so if you've ever watched episodes of NYPD Blue or Law & Order, you've witnessed dramatizations of conspiracies. For that matter, Iran/Contra was a real conspiracy by people like Oliver North and others within the Reagan administration to subvert the will of Congress by covertly selling weapons to Iran and funneling the money from those sales to the contras in Nicaragua. There was a left-leaning organization called the Christic Institute back in the 1980s that wove facts from Iran/Contra into an elaborate conspiracy theory that they claimed connected Iran/Contra to various covert actors involved in a wide range of prior criminal acts including the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam War, etc. People at the time (myself included) found the Christic Institute's claims credible because they fit the pattern of what we already believed about the Reagan administration and the contra war.
The Bush administration sold the war in Iraq in part by promoting a false conspiracy theory connecting Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 attacks. I remember reading a news story at the time where someone interviewed a "man on the street" who supported the war. The interviewer asked if the man believed that Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks. He replied, "Yes. It sort of fits the pattern of what I know about the guy." At around that same time, there were people on the left who believed that Bush was behind 9/11 somehow because it fit *their* pattern of what they believed about Bush. (ITALICS MINE)
JOSEPH GREEN: I’ve noticed that many people are obsessed with anti-conspiracy thinking, to the point where they will overlook obvious evidence in favor of a reality that makes them feel better. They will dismiss details as “trivial,” when the details are in contrast to their deeply held anti-conspiratorial notions. Many people, for example, continue to hold the preposterous notion that Oswald killed JFK - or worse, that Sirhan Sirhan killed RFK - even when the slightest understanding of physics would deny their conclusions. They will go so far as to project mental illness on people who disagree with them, despite having no expertise in the subject beyond reading a few articles in their newspaper of choice. It’s troubling.
SHELDON RAMPTON: Joseph Green Actually, I *do* believe that Oswald killed JFK and Sirhan Sirhan killed RFK. I used to think otherwise about the JFK assassination, but I've changed my opinion, although I appreciate that reasonable people might think otherwise. However, it's obvious that *all* of the conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination cannot be true. Some people think Castro was behind it. Others think it's the CIA. Others think it's the Mafia. The Christic Institute, which I mentioned previously, wove the JFK assassination into its narrative about Iran/Contra. Even if you think one of those scenarios is what happened, you can't possibly believe that they're all true.
...I don't claim to know everything about how this works, but often when there is a traumatic event in the news you see conspiracy theories circulate about it. For example, conspiracy theories emerged following the mass shootings a few months ago in Las Vegas by Stephen Paddock. As is often the case, people circulated "unanswered questions" about the shooting, such as these:
I think events like this attract conspiracy theories because (1) they're dramatic; (2) information about events of this nature usually comes in pieces, and the early information is often fragmentary, incomplete and contradictory. People puzzle over those inconsistencies and try to fit them into the pattern of their expectations about the world. In the case of the Las Vegas shootings, I think a lot of the people who circulated conspiracy theories were opponents of gun control who wanted to believe that it was a "false flag" incident engineered to pass legislation that would enable the government to take away everyone's guns. Similar "false flag" theories have emerged after Sandy Hook and other mass shootings.
JOSEPH GREEN: Sheldon M Rampton, multiple theories exist for virtually every fact in the known world. There are physicists who believe the universe is a computer simulation. Most physicists seem to believe in dark matter, for which no evidence exists whatsoever. Turbulence is not perfectly understood. Not every aspect of Newtonian mechanics is perfectly understood.
“Conspiracy theories” aren’t a special category. Presumably you believe in the Woodstein version of Watergate. Does that make you a conspiracy theorist? Why or why not?
I would say that theories asserting that the world is run by lizards etc. have a low probability of being correct, so low that it’s not worth taking seriously. But it is pure confusion to lump that sort of theory with (for example) the evidence that Sirhan Sirhan did not kill RFK. That thesis has a zero probability of being correct. If you don’t understand why, you haven’t read the coroners report.
SHELDON RAMPTON: I've already explained that I believe conspiracies exist. Please learn to read.
JOSEPH GREEN: Sorry if I wasn’t clear; however, you said that you believe Sirhan Sirhan killed RFK and that is a belief every bit as absurd as anything Alex Jones says. This isn’t something one can have differing opinions about - either you are familiar with and understand the evidence, or not. There is no scenario in this universe in which Sirhan could have killed Bobby Kennedy.
In light of this, my questions are: what is your program for determining which conspiracies are acceptable and which are not? And who gets the pejorative “conspiracy theorist” and who doesn’t?
SHELDON RAMPTON: Joseph Green I look at the evidence and reach a conclusion. Maybe I'm not always correct, but I do my best. I tend to distrust people like you who insist that they are absolutely certain about their theories, because that level of claimed certainty is usually a marker of emotional investment more than a marker of actual knowledge. We could go back and forth if you like about the evidence connecting Sirhan Sirhan to RFK's murder, but I doubt that either of us will find our views changed at the end of that exchange.
As for "my program for determining which conspiracies are acceptable and which were not," I don't have "a program." I have some opinions, which I've already outlined above. Just read what I've already written if you want to understand my views. As for which conspiracy theories are valid and which are not, I just do my best to follow the evidence. Perhaps you'd care to share your opinion about which of the following conspiracy theories you believe to be true:
(1) The Bavarian Illuminati has been working behind the scenes to orchestrate world events including the French Revolution, the Battle of Waterloo, the assassination of JFK, and infiltrating Hollywood.
(2) The Rothschild banking family is the secret force behind history beginning with the Napoleonic Wars and continuing through to the present day.
(3) The a United Nations has black helicopters with which tye plan to bring the U.S. under UN military control.
(4) Chemtrails are a conspiracy to poison the air.
(5) JFK's assassination was the work of Fidel Castro.
(6) JFK's assassination was the work of the CIA.
(7) JFK's assassination was the work of the FBI.
(8) JFK's assassination was the work of Lyndon Johnson.
(9) JFK's assassination was the work of the Mafia.
(10) JFK's assassination was the work of the KGB.
(11) RFK was killed by someone other than Sirhan Sirhan.
(12) Sirhan Sirhan was a Manchurian candidate who was hypnotized into killing RFK.
(13) The Pill and abortion are a conspiracy to eliminate black people.
(14) Political elites are conspiring to eliminate the white race.
(15) Haile Selassie never died in Ethiopia.
(16) The Apollo moon landing was faked with help from filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.
(17) he Bush family, Margaret Thatcher, Bob Hope, and the British Royal Family are shape-shifting alien reptiles.
(18) 9/11 was planned by the Bush administration to create a pretext for the war in Iraq.
(19) The Clintons murdered Vince Foster and 50 other people.
(20) The mass shootings at Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, the Parkland School and elsewhere were "false flag" operations in which "crisis actors" pretended to be victims so the government can take away everyone's guns.
(21) Barack Obama's birth certificate was faked, and he is a secret Muslim.
(22) The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency is building of concentration camps in preparation to impose martial law and genocide.
(23) The AIDS virus is a conspiracy to kill blacks and gays.
(24) Water fluoridation is a Communist conspiracy to weaken the U.S. population.
(25) The earth is flat, and the government is covering up the truth.
(26) Vaccines are a conspiracy by the pharmaceutical industry.
(27) The auto industry has been covering up the availability of technology to build cars powered cheaply by water, hemp and cold fusion.
(28) The pharmaceutical industry has suppressed knowledge of cures for cancer.
OK, I’ll play.
1. No, although George Washington was apparently concerned about it.
4. Don’t know.
5 through 10. No, although the CIA comes closest. Domestic assassinations, like foreign assassinations, come from the Pentagon.
12. No. He killed no one.
13. No, but eugenics was a huge influence on Margaret Sanger. Go and read her letters to H G Wells in particular. Edwin Black also has an excellent book on the eugenics movement called WAR AGAINST THE WEAK.
14. Yes, they’re called Republicans. Do you follow the news? (Sorry I thought you typed “white” by mistake rather than “Black.” If you really meant white, then no.)
18. Possibly, although it isn’t clear.
19. Definitely not.
20. No, but the Las Vegas shootings in particular had many anomalous elements. The “take away guns” theory is stupid, but I haven’t done enough work on these cases to really state a position.
22. No, but if you’ve noticed we have our immigrant children in concentration camps.
23. Not sure, but the WHO records are quite strange. The Boyd Graves lawsuit also turned up some amazing documents. Something is odd about it.
24. Communist, no. Fluoridation was a byproduct of industrial engineering and certain companies like Alcoa got the government to agree to dump it in our water. This was a terrible idea. I thought I read about this in your books, but perhaps not.
26. Definitely. The pharmaceutical industry has shown again and again that it doesn’t give a shit about anything but profits. This is not a “conspiracy” except in the sense of the nicotine conspiracy, cigarette companies covering up the dangers of their own products. Fifty or a hundred years from now I am quite sure that people will shake their heads in amazement at what we allowed to be injected into infants. Note: I don’t think that vaccines are bad in of themselves, but only the extra material put into them as stabilizers. See FEAR OF THE INVISIBLE by Janine Roberts.
27. Of course they have. They also did their best to put mass transit out of business. See INTERNAL COMBUSTION by Edwin Black. This is not conspiracy except in terms of profits, however - like various banks conspiring with Enron to ignore the obvious flags in their accounting principles. Everybody was making too much money.
28. I don’t know, but trusting pharmaceutical companies about anything is stupid.
Also, my certainty in the RFK case isn’t a result of an innate stubbornness, but from the fact that a person can’t shoot another person in the back of the head at point blank range if they are three feet away and facing the front.
Vince Salandria is one of the earliest and best-respected Kennedy assassination critics. A Philadelphia lawyer, as he identified himself in one classic essay, he is as charming as he is brilliant. Still razor-sharp, he recently sent an off-the-cuff reply email regarding the FBI that makes some wonderful points. Vince very kindly granted permission to allow me to reproduce the contents of that email here.
For the uninitiated, a good place to find more information is the online version of False Mystery by Vincent Salandria (edited and formatted by Dave Ratcliffe). Vince will also be featured in an upcoming documentary by Max Good.
Please note the title is my own, and not Vince's, but I think it accurately captures its contents.
Here is what I know. Wnat do you make of it?
1. Sibert and O’Neil, two FBI agents who attended the JFK autopsy, filed a report with the FBI that the bullet which impacted on Kennedy’s back never exited. That tended to create a possible small problem for the Warren Report.
2. Robert A. Frazier, the FBI ballistics expert, testified before the Warren Commission that Commission Exhibit 399, because it had shed many fragments and weighed what a normal bullet would have weighed, could not have been the bullet which paved its way through Kennedy and Connally. So, Frazier proved that the Warren Commission was dead wrong and that the law of the conservation of mass prevailed over my friend Arlen Specter’s myth. I dedicated one of my articles in “Liberation Magazine” to Mr. Frazier.
3. The FBI Report which was signed by J. Edgar Hoover, that was supposed to guide the Warren Commission, but which Report was not printed by the Commission and was found in the National Archives by me, confirmed that the bullet that hit Kennedy in the back never exited. That Report never was amended and never got lost, unlike the transcript of the Pentagon’s radio report to Air Force One and the Cabinet Plane did announcing that Oswald had killed Kennedy, and that there was no conspiracy, a conclusion which was announced in the afternoon of 11/22/1963, before there was any evidence against Oswald. Mr. Hoover’s Report was perhaps a bit damaging to the sole assassination myth. Don’t you agree? (italics mine)
4. Henry Wade, the Dallas District Attorney at the time of the assassination, immediately leaked Oswald’s FBI number and pay. There has not yet been an admission that Oswald, the fake Soviet defector, was CIA, nor do we know what his CIA number and pay was.
5. The biggest effort to destroy my credibility was undertaken by Lulu Belle Holmes, a/k/a Rita Rollins, a famous FBI agent. I concluded that she was trying to destroy my credibility by trying to get me to go to Canada on a search for the "real" Kennedy killers, promising $12,000.00 for my efforts, and a "New York Times" interview. She returned to my home about six months after the effort to discredit me had failed. In her later trip she offered to get me the proof that Hoover and LBJ had arranged for the killing of Kennedy. I suggested that I had no interest in this proof and instead strongly suggested that she return to the real killers and to her real employers, the CIA.
6. When I first asked for, under the Freedom of Information Act, my FBI and CIA files, I got the both of them. The CIA reported truthfully that I attributed to them the killing of Kennedy. The FBI reported that I had signed a petition against the rearming of West Germany. The FBI also made mention of my first article on the assassination published in the “Legal Intelligencer.” Several years later, when I again sought those same files, the CIA had a file which imputed to me the same truth telling about that agency having executed President Kennedy. The FBI reported that I had no file.
7. The FBI was responsible for reporting Communist activities of certain School District of Philadelphia teachers, which resulted in their firing. The Monday following Kennedy’s assassination, I reported to my classes that the Kennedy killing had the earmarks of a CIA killing. I continued to teach this to my high school students until my promotion to the District’s labor department in 1967. I litigated on behalf of the District all of the strikes. The FBI never interfered with my career.
What do you make of the above?
I am not prone to hyperbole, and I don't get pissed off easily, but the Daily Beast has driven me to indulge both of these today. They ran an article by Matt Lewis, ostensibly a journalist, entitled "Meet the Woman Who Was the Nixon Era's Alex Jones."
This is one of the most staggeringly inane articles I have ever had the displeasure to read, and certainly one of the worst caricatures of journalistic integrity to ever appear in a semi-legitimate publication. The subject of the piece is Mae Brussell, and as you can see from the title he compares her to Alex Jones.
This is already an insult, but Matt's just getting started.
Now Mae Brussell is a legendary figure in the counter-culture and in conspiracy circles, and her work is meticulous, complex, and possessed of an insight into both historical veracity and human nature. She sometimes gets labeled as a "conspiracy queen," but this term is mostly used to demean her, as is the frequent observation that she was a housewife. As if there is anything inherently wrong with that.
Brussell's intelligence is on display on any of her radio shows or her articles (which found an audience in Paul Krassner's magazine The Realist. Krassner was so impressed with her that he helped put out her Conspiracy Newsletter.) Her intelligence - and singular power of analysis - is readily apparent, whether or not one agrees with her assessments. Although, frankly, if you're disagreeing with her assessments you are probably wrong. For just one example, the Watergate burglars were arrested in June of 1972. Before Woodward and Bernstein started their series in the Washington Post, two weeks after it had happened, Brussell had written her article "Why Was Martha Mitchell Kidnapped?" in which she had figured out most of the structure involved. That article appeared in The Realist in August 1972.
Seriously, read the article. It's amazing. She has the players down cold. Instantly.
And do you know why that article is amazing? Because Mae had this habit of reading - a habit that Matt Lewis seems to be unacquainted with. She knew who the people were, and knew their backgrounds. Jesus Christ, she already mentions the slush fund tied to Richard Nixon. Woodstein, the intrepid pair, wouldn't get there for another year and needed Hal Holbrook in a parking garage to feed them breadcrumbs, if you believe that story.
The point is, what I am saying is that Matt Lewis comparing Mae Brussell to an assclown like Alex Jones is beyond the pale. Only someone who either (1) has an agenda or (2) is bereft of cognition could make the comparison. I used to live in Austin, and I'm a political activist, so I'd see Alex around at events. I saw him interact with his staff, and somewhere there may be tape of me refusing to be on his public access show. When we were in Dallas for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, John Judge was talking to a small group who had braved the ice storm to participate in the memorial. John's speech was interrupted by Alex, of course, blaring nonsense from his bullhorn and accompanied by his usual gang of idiots.
To say that Mae and Jones are comparable because they were both "conspiracy theorists" is like saying Matt here is like Stephen Glass because they're both journalists. If you aren't able to draw distinctions as obvious as these, then you are in the wrong profession.
But it gets worse. Because next, he compares Mae Brussell to Father Coughlin. Father Coughlin may not be a familiar figure to many, but he was a believer in the "Jewish conspiracy," and promoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion - much like Henry Ford did, among many others in America both in the years leading up to World War II and, unfortunately, now.
Equating these two people is…the word I want to use is "demonic," and I am not religious.
Perhaps that's an overstatement; I don't have a good word for this comparison. Trumpian.
Mae Brussell was the most anti-fascist personality that one could possibly imagine. She spent her life's work rooting out Nazi influences on the American government and found a great many. Her work was continued to a large degree by John Judge and also Alex Constantine, continuing the research into the fascist operatives lurking in sheep's clothing of a democratic republic.
Saying Mae Brussell is like Father Coughlin is like saying Matt Lewis is Joseph Goebbels. So hence my hyperbole. By the way, Mae Brussell was Jewish. So yeah, you just did that.
Likewise, the iconoclastic Brussell defied ideological labels, though she was probably more left-wing than right-wing. Crazy knows no bounds.
He's writing this about a woman who is deceased and can neither respond nor sue.
Fuck you, Matt. And fuck the Daily Beast for allowing this insane article to be published. If this idiot had read one sentence about Mae Brussell, he would not have been able to write that she was "probably more left-wing…" It's unbelievable. Except unfortunately it isn't, because welcome to our America, I guess.
If you would to read some of Mae Brussell's work, or listen to her shows, I can suggest the following websites:
Worldwatchers.info (the best Brussell site of them all, built by my late friend Rob Falotico)
Ratical.org (run by Dave Ratcliffe)
You can also find some of her work collected in this book, published by Feral House and edited by Alex Constantine:
I strongly urge you to look at her material. I think you might come to realize that maybe Mae has a point. Considering who the President is and what the hell's going on in this country, I would suggest that perhaps she has a little more insight into our situation than Matt Lewis, who has failed to do his homework like a fucking child.
I don't expect much from the Daily Beast, but I do expect better than this.
“We live in an era of migrating corporations. In order to escape organized labor in this country – and this higher wages, benefits, and so on – corporations roam the world in search of nations providing cheap labor pools…Huge numbers of people lose jobs and prospects for future jobs. Because the economic base of these communities is destroyed, education and other surviving social services are profoundly affected. This process turns the men, women, and children who lives in these damaged communities into perfect candidates for prison.”
We are introduced to the title character of Roman J. Israel, Esq., (Denzel Washington) as he types up a legal brief against himself. He has violated both rule or law and his code of professional conduct, and the rest of the film shows us how he got to that point.
Roman has been a silent partner in a two-man attorney’s office for decades, doing all the background legal maneuvering while his partner shows up to court. He seems to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum, possessed of a brilliant mind, and a real soul brother who never stopped trying to work toward the social and political revolution promised in the 1960s. He literally carries this work around with him in his briefcase, a monster brief he wants to file in federal court to try and undo the private prison industry, among other things.
He also hasn’t had to deal with the real world, and real people, in a very long time. So when his partner goes down with a heart attack, he is suddenly forced to handle clients up close and deal with prosecutors and judges accustomed to playing the agreed-upon game rather than following the strict letter of the law.
Things become further complicated when he forms a friendship with a young woman (Maya, played by Carmen Ejogo) who volunteers at a civil rights organization in Los Angeles, and finds himself at a new job at a huge corporate firm run by a slick lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell) who has mastered the game. At first, Roman struggles in this new world, but – desperate for money – he learns fast, taking the advantage of a client’s privileged disclosure to get some quick hard cash.
This is an unruly and ungainly picture, eccentric in pacing and structure, much like its titular protagonist. At a certain point, writer/director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) writes himself into a corner, making the ending something of a predictable anticlimax. That is too bad, but the problem for Gilroy is that he had to graft a thriller onto what is essentially a character study. I don’t this for a fact, but it’s easy to imagine that he got involved writing all the great character scenes for his hero that he lost interest in the thriller part. (And in fact, the film’s title went from Inner City in pre-production to finally Roman J. Israel, Esq., which has to one of the least commercial titles of all time. But fitting.)
So yes, this picture has flaws. But it also does so many things well. How many films have you seen that know who Bayard Rustin was? How many films deal with the plea-bargaining that means well over 90% of criminal cases never see trial? How many films try to grapple with what real social justice actually looks like – thankless and tireless work. Or as Roman himself puts it, “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.”
Most importantly, however, is that the film really deals with the spiritual, physical, and emotional costs of giving a shit.
Roman’s whole problem is that he gives a shit. George Pierce, the Colin Farrell character, has life figured out. He wears great suits, runs four offices, makes a fantastic living and endures very little drama. In fact, Roman starts to infect George with his giving a shit virus right about the same time Roman starts to give up on it. Which causes his own existential crisis.
One of the basic aspects of this society we live in is that it doesn’t pay to try and be truthful. Working and caring about the truth gets you nothing but grief, both at work (if you work in a normal corporate environment) and in life. Try getting rich telling people the truth. Uh-huh. Who gets rich? Corporate pastors with megachurches. Douchebag lawyers who flip their clients into the system. Movie producers like Jerry Bruckheimer selling military propaganda to young people too poorly educated to understand how they’re being lied to.
At schools and universities, teachers and professors struggle to make rent. Know who doesn’t? Administrators, who seem to replicate like cancer. I’ve worked in and out of claims organizations for twenty years. There are many good people who work in these organizations. And there are also total incompetents blessed with zero conscience and the ability to wear a tie. Guess who ends up rewarded by the system.
My wife and I walked out of the movie, and she turned and asked me, “Did you like it?” And my immediate answer was: “Yeah. It’s kind of made for me.”
So take what I’m saying here with a grain of salt. I’m more willing to forgive the picture’s flaws because it’s the kind of picture that I like. It deliberately evokes the 1970s, down to the soundtrack and Denzel’s amazing afro, and it tries to tackle adult subjects in an adult way. And Gilroy, the writer, seems to have done his homework.
For one example, there is a scene where Maya calls Roman and invites him out to a dinner “date.” Except it isn’t really a date, although Roman would be perfectly happy for it have been one, he picks up on the fact that it isn’t when Maya gets emotional. Of course she does. Life is hard when you give a shit, and Roman is becoming one of her heroes. She remarks to one of her co-workers who makes fun of the out-of-touch attorney: “We stand on his shoulders.” She sees that.
This is really good, tricky writing by Gilroy. It would be easy to make their relationship stilted or icky. It isn’t, because he has a grip on the ins and outs of the two human beings he’s writing about.
There’s another reason I connected to this film. I am a political researcher (sometimes a “conspiracy researcher,” although that term is problematic) and I have been blessed to meet, and work with, many of my heroes. And these were heroes to me because they worked to either overturn existing social structures and conditions, or to obtain the truth about events our government has deliberately concealed. And mostly they run around in old clothes and don’t necessarily know how to use Instagram and aren’t always politic about expressing themselves.
They end up paying a price for giving a shit.
Both the public and the critics have rejected this picture by and large, and it’s not surprising. But I expect this to be one of those films that grows in reputation over time and is eventually looked at as a wonky classic. Not only because of the terrific acting work (Denzel is terrific as one expects, but Farrell is brilliant in a great role as well) but because of the many good scenes and the many good questions raised in the film, despite some of the narrative issues.
This is Joe Green's blog.