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Film / Roman J. Israel, Esq.

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I don’t have another second to waste, telling people to not sleep so tight, trying to turn things around. Toward what? Some glory of fantasy over the real world? All I ever did was run around with too much to do, feeling guilty all the time, flat broke, it’s quite nearly killed me.

Roman J. Israel, esq. is a legal drama written and directed by Dan Gilroy, starring Denzel Washington as the titular lawyer. Basically, take The Verdict and turn the characters and premise on its head, and you've got this movie.

Roman Israel is a brilliant, idealistic defense lawyer who is severely lacking in interpersonal skills, working in a small firm led by civil rights veteran William Jackson. When Jackson falls ill, Roman is forced to interact with opposing counsel and clients for the first time, which he botches horribly. When Jackson dies shortly after, Roman, incapable of running the firm on his own, is out of a job. When he has trouble finding a paying job that accords with his values, he takes a job at a large firm at the invitation of the high-powered former student of Jackson, George Pierce. Roman repeatedly tries and fails to exercise his passion for social justice, but a series of unfortunate events robs him of his idealism, making him decide to shift to a more mercenary worldview.

Despite its rather tepid reception, the film is considered to be one of Washington's finest performances, netting him several award nominations. It is unique among other films in the genre due to its scarily cynical and realistic focus on the legal industry itself.

Tropes found in Roman J. Israel, Esq.:

  • Born in the Wrong Century: Roman is a creature of the 70s, and has some difficulty adjusting to the changes to the legal profession and activist culture of the modern day.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Roman is killed for turning in CJ for the money (most of which is returned unspent with a promise to pay back the rest), but George decides to posthumously file Roman's plea-bargaining reform class-action suit.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Deconstructed. Being this caused Jackson's firm to stay in the red, leading him to rely on loans from friends and occasionally taking a case just for the money. When he dies, Jackson's family is saddled with a massive debt that they have to sell the firm to manage.
  • Cynicism Catalyst: Discovering that taking on civil rights cases financially ruined his firm is the final nail in the coffin of Roman's idealism. He then swings too far in the other direction, ultimately deciding that the only thing he'll care about is money.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Roman's attempts to give a speech to a law school class are derailed by him criticizing the male students for being seated while two female students are standing. He then is, in turn, criticized for being sexist. It's even lampshaded, one of the girls pointing out "it isn't 40 years ago."
  • Easily Forgiven: George Pierce eventually decides he was too hard on Roman even though Roman's screw-up indirectly led to his client's death.
  • Fauxlosophic Narration: Part of Roman's social awkwardness is his tendency to engage in loquacious monologuing even for minor subjects.
  • Important Haircut: Roman's afro is emblematic of the hopeful era when he started practicing. He cuts it off when he loses his idealism.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Behind his slick shark exterior, George really does want to make the world a better place.
  • The Last DJ: Deconstructed. Attempting to stick to his guns gets him nowhere, as the only groups he's willing to work with don't have the funds to give him a paying job. He has to reluctantly accept a job at a big firm to avoid poverty. He's also been so wrapped up in his work that his personal life has suffered as a result. He also comes off as self-righteous towards other people who are just trying to make a living.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Roman's complete inability to convey a tip to the prosecution from his clients in the hopes of negotiating a plea deal leads to that client being killed in prison before he has a chance.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Discussed when Pierce attempts to convince Roman to take a job at his firm, Pierce pointing out that you have to make money to live.
  • Soapbox Sadie: Roman will preach all day long, which is why he mostly handles research rather than courtroom arguments.