Most of law is not like it is in the movies. There are very few sweeping case discoveries at the last minute that prove your client’s innocence. There are few impassioned pleas to humanity that sway the jury in the closing statements. And there is almost never one juror who stands up and turns the tide of a sweltering summer afternoon deliberation. A Few Good Men, The Verdict, The Firm, Philadelphia, and 12 Angry Men are fantastic and engaging films, but they depict the exceptions to reality. Most of law happens behind the scenes. A great deal of time and effort are spent in reviewing old decisions and drafting documents—all for the result of a plea deal. Roman J. Israel, Esq. gives glimpses of the kind of law that takes place before court attorneys ever stand up in front of the jury.
Denzel Washington stars as the eponymous character in Roman J. Israel, Esq. Israel works as a partner of and attorney for William Jackson, a prominent defense attorney in Los Angeles. Israel is an extremely intelligent and competent attorney who is second to none at researching and building cases. When Jackson is hospitalized by a heart attack in the first few moments of the film, the audience learns the reasons behind Israel’s residence as a behind-the-scenes attorney. Israel takes over the cases for the day and is instructed to seek continuances for each based on Jackson’s health concerns. When Israel gets to one of his client’s hearings, he can’t seem to keep his mouth shut. He is so knowledgeable and so determined to see justice in every aspect of the law that he winds up in contempt of court.
As Jackson’s condition worsens, his daughter Lynn (Amanda Warren) steps in to administer his estate and dissolve the practice. She brings on George Pierce (Colin Farrell) to assist with the legal aspects of the dissolution. Pierce’s first few appearances in the film paint him as the corporate shark Israel accuses him of being. He cares only about the bottom line, drives a nice car, wears expensive tailored suits, and is very professional. Israel, on the other hand, dresses just the same as he did in the ’60s and ’70s. His passion for justice and for equal rights under the law comes from his inferred activism during the civil rights movement. In short, he is a holdover from another time, and when his practice is dissolved, he finds himself spinning and directionless. Roman J. Israel, Esq. shows Israel on a series of job hunts in order to retain his meager apartment and possessions. His idealism and drive initially preclude him from accepting a position at Pierce’s firm, but after exhausting all possibilities, Israel finds himself at a tiny desk trying to adjust to the extroverted, money-hungry, email-using firm that Pierce runs.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that the only reason Roman J. Israel, Esq. has been nominated for Screen Actors Guild awards and can be considered a good movie is Denzel Washington’s performance. Washington has always been one of the best actors of his generation, and he certainly brings his A-game to this film. Aside from Fences, it’s been five years since we’ve seen an award-worthy performance from Washington in a film, and his return is very welcome. Washington embodies the role, making Israel’s character all his own. He is absolutely magnetic, just as he is in every other role he puts effort into. Often, an actor’s ability to make a movie into something more than it is falls by the wayside. But Washington pulls it off in Roman J. Israel, Esq. If any other actor played Israel instead of Washington, this movie wouldn’t be half as good. It is only Washington’s unique brand of gravitas, depth, and cadence that saves this movie from mediocrity. Throughout the film, Israel’s character undergoes dramatic changes as he struggles with his idealistic passion for civil rights and his desire for a better and more comfortable life than the one he has lived for the last 35 years. Washington embodies these changes so well that it almost looks easy. Nothing can be said that would do justice to the master class of acting that Washington presents in the film.
The weaknesses in Roman J. Israel, Esq. are instead found in the lack of apparent motivation for some parts of the movie, and for the parts of the film that feel less cohesive. Some of the motivations for Israel’s changes are only evident from charitable inference. These same changes also occur too quickly for belief, especially because the character the audience has been presented with has been firm and unchanged for more than three decades. The other actors in the film—Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo — are all good in their respective roles, but they aren’t carrying the weight of the film on their shoulders like Washington.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a very good legal drama, but these minor flaws keep it from being the film it should be. It should be seen for Washington’s performance, but little else.
Featured Image by Columbia Pictures