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Watch This Review

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Movie Review

Tom Cruise, he is not.

Attorney Roman J. Israel is no heroic legal advocate like you see in Hollywood movies. Slouched and schlubby, he walks with a galumphing, bear-like saunter. He's instantly recognizable not from his cinematic good looks and slick grooming, but by his ill-fitting sports coat and ancient headphones. He lives alone, frittering away the hours listening to classic jazz, eating peanut-butter sandwiches and calling in complaints to Los Angeles' noise control offices. He's awkward before he even opens his mouth. And when he finally does? Even his closest associates would like him to close it again. Quickly.

"Public speaking is usually something I'm encouraged to avoid," he admits.

He's no Tom Cruise, no Gregory Peck, no Denzel Washington. But he is a fine lawyer. And for decades he's worked in partnership with well-known civil rights attorney William Henry Jackson, cobbling together cases so that Jackson can grandstand before juries. Roman doesn't mind. He never has. For him, it's always been about the work—and what glorious, worthwhile work it is, helping the poor and downtrodden fight a system often stacked against them. His ethos was forged in the 1960s and his technical know-how stopped somewhere in the 1990s, but his thirst for justice is timeless.

But then, suddenly, William suffers a catastrophic attack and is left in a vegetative state. His daughter takes a look at the books and sees the firm's been running at a deficit for years. She'll have to shut the place down. And she wants George Pierce—a hot-shot lawyer as slick as they come, from his hair to his suits to his charming demeanor—to close out the remaining cases. Looks like Roman's out of a job.


George sizes up Roman and sees in seconds what others might miss: Roman possesses a first-class legal mind. George wants him on his team.

Roman? Pairing up with a guy like George? Pish. Roman wants nothing to do with an oily attorney who cares more about his billable hours than the people he's representing. Roman has principles. Ethics. He doesn't roll that way.

But a few days later, the bills start rolling in. Despite calling everyone in William's rolodex, he can't find a job. He's desperate. Willing, perhaps, to make just this one little ethical compromise.

Just one.

Positive Elements

Our titular lawyer, as you might've surmised by now, doesn't walk on the straight-and-narrow throughout the movie. But initially, Roman sees himself as a civil rights crusader—a man who, in his own small way, has made a difference for people across the city of Los Angeles. (His own name hints at his chivalrous tendencies; the "Esq.", he patiently explains, is a mark of distinction, for an esquire ranked just a little lower than a knight.)

Folks might not know who he is, but Roman knows that many of William's courtroom victories could be attributed to Roman's unflagging work. He's an old-school idealist, unwilling to compromise and unable, it seems, to play nice with others. And while those characteristics cut both ways, obviously, one cannot doubt his passion for causes he sees as worthwhile, or his perseverance in pursuing them.

An example: Late one evening, Roman and Maya, head of a local civil rights organization, come across the body of a man they believe is dead. Police show up on scene shortly thereafter and ask (not unreasonably) that Roman and Maya to not touch the corpse. Roman disregards the order and slips one of his cards into the man's pocket. Why? Roman knows what happens to un-ID'ed, unclaimed bodies at the morgue: They're summarily incinerated without a second thought. By leaving his contact information on the body, Roman's trying to ensure that this nameless man is treated with a measure of dignity, adding that he's willing to pay for the stranger's funeral himself. "I am not going to let him be swallowed up [by the system]," he says.

Roman's reasoning doesn't hold water for the police, but it does impress Maya. She sees him as a much-needed source of inspiration—a man determined to fight for what's right, no matter the cost or social pressures. She pursues her own thankless work with greater energy: "I feel blessed to believe in something," she tells him. "The way you do." And when Roman loses his way ethically, her belief in him helps bring him back.

George Pierce, too, begins to see Roman as more than simply a smart legal brain: Roman becomes the de facto conscience of George's firm and, perhaps, of George himself. The lawyer opens the door to doing more pro bono work, and he demands that the firm's other lawyers follow Roman's example and get to know and care for their clients. He even eventually takes on the mantel of civil rights crusader himself.

Spiritual Content

There's talk about how William, even though he's in a vegetative state, "will never leave us." William eventually dies, and he's buried in a ceremony presided over by a Christian pastor. The pastor describes William's view of overarching morality by saying that "the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." George recalls one of his favorite quotes from William Henry Jackson: "I believe because of my beliefs."

In an effort to reconcile some of his recent actions, Roman files a fictional lawsuit against himself, standing before the "Supreme Court of Absolute Universal Law." Maya tells Roman, "I feel like I was meant to meet you."

I believe there's a spiritual component in the attorney's name, too.

"Roman Israel" reminds us of Palestine under Roman occupation, a nation of true believers surrounded by a powerful, pagan empire. You could argue that the attorney we first meet is indeed a true believer, espousing values that the surrounding culture neither understands nor respects.

But the Roman part of his name represents the pull and eventual capitulation to that culture, too—an almost literal callback to the cliché, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." He, like all of us, is pulled by two forces: The better angels of our nature (as Lincoln put it) and our baser, more beastly desires that sometimes put us at odds with our values.

[Spoiler Warning] The "J.," obviously, is intriguing, too, though the hypothesis for this is a bit more of a reach. While we never learn what it stands for, in context I'd not be surprised if part of its usage was intended to wink to the name of Jesus. Indeed, Roman undergoes something of a secular redemption story: He falls from grace, but in the midst of a crisis that ultimately involves a sacrifice, he finds his way to a metaphorical promised land.

Sexual Content

Roman kisses Maya lightly on the lips. When he talks to a class of twentysomethings interested in activist law, he wonders aloud why some women are standing up while men are sitting down. The women standing call Roman out for being sexist.

Violent Content

A man approaches Roman on a dark sidewalk, asking for money. When Roman tries to give him passes to the local mission, the man attacks him, punching Roman and shoving him against a fence. Roman's glasses are broken in the attack.

One of Roman's clients is in jail for his (minor) role in the death of a store clerk. The client is later killed in jail. Another one of Roman's clients threatens Roman's life.

Someone is shot to death. As mentioned, Roman and Maya discover what they think is a dead body.

Crude or Profane Language

Two f-words and three s-words. God's name is misused four times (including two pairings with "d--n"), while Jesus’ name is abused about half a dozen times. We also hear "a--," "b--ch," "b--tard," d--n," "h---" and "p-ss."

Drug and Alcohol Content

Roman and Maya drink wine at a restaurant. We hear about drug deals.

Other Negative Elements

Roman learns that his previous do-gooding firm wasn't nearly as pure and innocent as he had thought. William Henry Jackson and George Pierce had worked out a system of kickbacks that, at least in Roman's eyes, were unethical.

In part because of that disillusionment, Roman turns his back on his own ethics and ideals.

[Spoiler Warning] One of his clients knew where a killer wanted by the police was hiding; when that client is killed in jail, Roman calls in the tip and collects the $100,000 reward, which catapults him into a more comfort-rich lifestyle. "I'm tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful," he says by way of justification. "I have more practical concerns."

Elsewhere, Roman argues in court that the fact that police didn't allow his client to go to the bathroom proves he was in police custody (as opposed to being voluntarily interviewed). We hear a great deal about urination and such during the ensuing debate. He refers to a plea offer by a prosecuting attorney as a "sunshine enema."


We don't see much overt spirituality in Roman J. Israel, Esq. But dig a little deeper, and you'll find plenty. At its core, it's the story of sin, salvation and the status of Roman's soul.

A fancy apartment that Roman buys represents his turn to the dark side, a Faustian bargain with the money-loving culture he fought for so long. He confesses to Maya that he wonders whether he'll miss his old place. When Maya suggests that perhaps he's moving out too soon, Roman shuts her down.

"Signed a contract," he said. "There's no going back."

Roman also begins arguing for moral relativism. He worries about his billable hours. "Purity can't survive in this world," he tells Maya. And when he gets dirty, indeed, Roman thrives. The prosperity Gospel isn't preached here. Just the opposite, in fact: The "good" Roman is rumpled, poor and unemployed; the "bad" Roman has it all.

But it's not worth it.

Such is the turn the film makes. Roman J. Israel Esq.. tells us that not only is virtue its own reward, it is, ultimately, the only one.

Roman J. Israel Esq.. has issues, both in content and narrative. Language can be a burden. The legalese we hear can drag the story down. The plot can bound around like a puppy. And some may believe that Roman's ideals are misguided or overblown. He believes he's fighting against an unjust system, after all; to buy into his ideals, one must believe that the system is, on some level, unjust.

But buoyed by a remarkable performance by Denzel Washington, this movie has plenty of going for it, too. Rarely do we see such moral clarity in the modern cinema.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles



Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range





Denzel Washington as Roman J. Israel; Colin Farrell as George Pierce; Carmen Ejogo as Maya; Nazneen Contractor as Melina Nassour; Joseph David-Jones as Marcus Jones


Dan Gilroy ( )





Record Label



In Theaters

November 22, 2017

On Video

February 13, 2018

Year Published



Paul Asay

Content Caution

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