Oscar season has come and movies were released that most of us will not see.
And with every year you get a couple of films that seem to have a similar theme. In this case it was the theme of the problems of the criminal justice system and the two movies that deal with this are Molly’s Game and Roman J. Israel Esq. But where one of these movies shows the real problems of the system the other gets bogged down in bad characterization, poor direction, and treating what should be its central theme as merely a side plot.
So, before we get into how one of these films does a great job and the other doesn’t, let’s deal with the theme itself.
Both films make the case that the US legal system is geared to force defendants to plead guilty to all charges. They do this by making it so expensive to mount a defense that to do so offers you a lifetime of debt which will likely be as burdensome, if not more so, than going to jail. They do this by charging defendants with more than they might be guilty of, offering punishment far exceeding the charges if they do not plea, in some cases trumping up charges and actively stealing the funds you would use to mount a defense. It is a serious problem of the modern criminal justice system, in that, it is ceasing to be related to justice in any way, shape, or form. We’ll get to how this very real problem needs to be dealt with in the real world…but first the movies.
Roman J. Israel Esq. may very well be the worst film of Denzel Washington’s dramatic career (granted Denzel has never been able to do comedy, but this might be the worst of his dramas). The main character is either a functioning autistic who can memorize the entire US and California criminal and civil code along with all cases in the California courts for the last two decades, while eating the same meal at every meal every day and not able to function with other human beings…while at the same time forming a semi-romantic bond, able to go into the grey zones of ethics for personal gain, and understand the subtleties of sarcasm and even a wide range of human emotions. While the reality of spectrum disorders are more complex than anything shown on screen, the fact is that this movie doesn’t show an honest view of spectrum disorders, it has scenes with a person with autism and scenes with a person who doesn’t have autism. If I didn’t know the same person wrote and directed this film, I would have guessed this movie had multiple rewrites with multiple writers, each with a different understanding of the film, the character is so inconsistent in the portrayal. And this poor portrayal distracts from the fact that our main character is working against the injustices of the criminal justice system. In fact, in a movie that’s trying to make a social statement, it is a problem that isn’t even brought up until a third of the way into the movie and is barely mentioned again until the end. And Denzel’s performance is just so painful to watch that you can’t care about the supposed message.
Meanwhile, you have Molly’s Game, a fictionalized version (I’m really not concerned with how accurate the film is to the reality of Molly Bloom’s case, because it’s secondary to the realities the film depicts) of real-life poker game runner Molly Bloom’s legal problems. This is possibly Jessica Chastain’s best performance. Molly Bloom is intelligent, resourceful, charismatic, and strangely ethical. Her crimes are drug use and taking a share of the profit of a situation that would not exist had she not been there. And for this, so to make a point, the government not only charges her with crimes she never committed under RICO, but uses civil forfeiture to take all of her legally earned 4 million dollars (then says she has to pay taxes on it even though she had already paid taxes on it). And unless she turns over private files on individuals that are completely unrelated to the crimes she was accused of (blackmail level material J. Edgar would have killed for) they will not give her a deal. The film makes you care about Molly, and her lawyer (played by the always underused Idris Elba) offers us the perfect vehicle for our doubts and eventually admiration for Molly through her story.
So why does one story work and the other doesn’t? Well for one there is the moral difference between our main characters. Molly Bloom is the kind of person who will not sell out people for her own gain, where selling out other people is the very definition of what Israel does. So, it’s that we have a hard time caring about our lead characters. It doesn’t matter that Molly has had problems all her life and Israel’s flaw was a one-time thing— a character is often best judged when you have nothing to lose and everything to gain and when the chips are down Bloom shows more character. The second problem is how both stories show the problem of the criminal justice system. The problem affects our main character in Molly’s Game whereas they are only tertiary in Roman J. Israel Esq. We never have a chance to feel any bond with the criminals Denzel defends thus the injustices are merely an academic problem, not something actually affecting real people. The other problem is, of course, the type of crime being displayed. In Roman J. Israel Esq., the kind of crimes that people are being bullied to give pleas over are murder, robbery, conspiracy to commit a crime. It’s kind of hard to feel for someone with these kinds of charges unless they’re innocent of them (and, I’ll save you the time, the main character they show who is being charged with murder was really only guilty of aiding and abetting but getting charged with murder…a miscarriage of justice, true, but he’s not exactly a saint).
Meanwhile the crime Molly Bloom is charged with is the crime of taking a share of the profit of a situation that she set up herself and that she is monetarily liable for (she took 2% of the pot…the government takes 50% of the pot on a lottery, but yeah she’s a “criminal”)…and this is a crime if done on a game of chance (which anyone who has ever played poker knows isn’t a game of chance) and her other crime was using drugs (which at this point any rational person is willing to admit it might just be better to legalize it all). Molly’s Game shows that this rigged system isn’t being used by prosecutors who may just have the best interests of society at heart (you can forgive someone being zealous in wanting to get murders and thieves off the streets, just look at how we all loved Jack McCoy during the better days of Law & Order) but when it’s being used for things that probably shouldn’t even be a crime, that’s a real problem. Finally, Roman J. Israel Esq. fails by showing D.A.’s to be overworked themselves, and simply not having enough time to try every case—if you’re going to make the case that the system is rigged it is best not to show why D.A.’s might act like this in the first place. Molly’s Game makes a much more clear point that while some D.A.’s might be overworked, many simply overcharge and harass people through such aspects as civil forfeiture* and sending whole SWAT Teams to intimidate are not because they’re overworked, but because they’re the very petty bullies a criminal justice system is supposed to protect us from.
Now the serious problem that neither of these movies wants to admit that is that there isn’t much of an alternative at present. There are not enough D.A.’s to try every case, and we can’t possibly afford to employ that many lawyers. So aside from the obvious of better education (which requires better parenting, which means the government can do nothing about that particular part of the problem) what can we do? Well, first you need to reduce the number of things you can be charged with. Drugs, gambling, selling cigarettes, selling alcohol at only government-approved stores. The whole of the nanny state needs to go. Any blue law left over from prohibition or the all to clearly lost the war on drugs needs to go. If people want to gamble let them (the private sector already has a better alternative to anything the Las Vegas and Indian Casinos—and all their mob funding—can possibly provide). Legalize sex work. Regulate them to prevent minors getting involved, but legalize them. Tax them at a reasonable level (i.e. not above 10%…any higher and all you’ll do is create a black market again). There you’ve just eliminated a huge portion of what constitutes a crime and destroyed a vast swatch of organized crime’s cash flow. Granted this is not the majority of what is in prison, but it is a larger percentage of what is actually charged. (I would go with the numbers of people in prison for crime but we all know that is inaccurate because many major crimes are pled down to lesser crimes so it is not an accurate view of actual crimes).
Granted there are a lot of other things, large and small, but that is way outside the purview of these movies. The core problem and its single biggest solution, which is only hinted at in Molly Bloom (probably not even intentionally) is to legalize all the things that shouldn’t be illegal in the first place. That will both free up people to actually act like human beings and conduct their business as they see fit without the government getting involved where it has no business being. Molly’s Game makes it clear that this is government abuse…Roman Israel only barely implies this is a real problem.
Go see Molly’s Game and skip Roman Israel.
*Honestly any police officers, prosecutors, judges, and legislators that have had any hand in any civil forfeiture should be charged with grand theft, convicted and thrown into general population with the words cop or DA tattooed onto their forehead and given no additional security, not to mention have their entire personal wealth confiscated and given to their victims, and then maybe justice will have been served—that should give you an idea how vile and unconstitutional an offense civil forfeiture is. It is a crime worthy of immediate execution, no exceptions. It is exactly the kind of tyranny that the Declaration of Independence states as a reason for rebellion, and it cannot be tolerated. Anyone who supports it in any form is a tyrant and deserves to be treated as such—Eighth Amendment guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment be damned, those restrictions only apply to humans which those who support civil forfeiture have clearly not an entitlement to the name. Can you tell I feel strongly about this issue?