Opinion writer

This post discusses the plot of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” in broad terms but avoids the details of the film’s twist.

Most of the time, I’d rather watch a movie with a lot of ambition even if it turns into a colossal failure than sit through a couple of hours of something that feels conservatively crafted to the point of sclerosis. But every once in a while, I watch a movie that has so much potential and that punts on this potential in such a spectacular fashion that I reconsider my general stance.

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” by writer-director Dan Gilroy, who made “Nightcrawler,” one of my favorite movies of 2014, is such a film. The movie is so packed with interesting, highly relevant ideas that I almost wish I hadn’t seen it, so I wouldn’t have spent the last week thinking about what it could have been, as opposed to what it actually is.

When the film begins, Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington), who insists on “the esquire” — “a title of dignity, slightly above gentleman, below knight,” as he explains it — is toiling in the background of a two-man law office, writing the briefs that sustain the career of a brilliant lawyer who funds his civil rights work with a criminal defense practice.

But when Roman’s partner dies, his relatives decide to shutter the office, which is deeply in debt. Roman tries, unsuccessfully, to find a job with the National Assembly for Civil Rights, an organization founded by one of his partner’s friends, pitching himself to Maya (Carmen Ejogo), who runs the office as a “long-haul revolutionary, full-time, in-house paid advocate.” But when that fails, he ends up going to work for George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a sharky defense attorney who used to kick loser cases to Roman and his partner, and who recognizes the potential in Roman’s savant-like knowledge of the legal code and other lawyers’ records.

There are a lot of terrific potential tensions in this setup. What happens when a lawyer who is steeped in genuinely radical politics goes to work for a highly corporatized firm and starts pitching its higher retainers to desperate new clients? What about when those corporate lawyers start to get interested in the radical lawyer’s causes and take those issues on for themselves?

What happens when someone who was shaped and inspired by figures such as Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X tries to talk to a new generation of activists who ground their politics in academic concepts and see Roman’s chivalric streak as an expression of the patriarchy? Was it ethical for Roman’s old partner to pay him $500 a week and leave him vulnerable even as he painted himself as a champion of the downtrodden? What does it take to make groundbreaking political work financially sustainable? Is it ethical to confront the system bluntly if it means that in the short term, more people will suffer, especially if there’s no clear long-term gain from that confrontation?

A movie that settled on any of those questions and really dove deep on them might have been one of the more significant, timely movies of 2017. “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” makes the baffling decision to go in a much more milquetoast direction, ultimately setting up Roman as an inspirational figure for George and Maya, rather than someone whose life serves as a novel answer to any of those questions.

In “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy’s directorial debut, he managed to make his plot twists serve his argument. That movie featured Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, who like Roman is a slightly socially maladjusted man trying to find a place for himself. In “Nightcrawler,” Louis stumbles on a seedy occupation: taking gruesome crime and accident scene video and selling it to television producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo) as an exclusive. Ultimately, he progresses to staging the scenes and worse, pulling Nina deeper into complicity with him. “Nightcrawler” is a potent, sickening statement on media ethics and capitalism; the theme and the plot are inextricable from each other.

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” has a similarly twisty subplot about attorney-client privilege and the plea-bargaining system. But rather than resolving the plot in a way that leaves Roman either compromised or redeemed, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” opts for a cop-out that clears the way for its oddly uplifting and deeply unresolved ending.

Maybe it would be easier for all of us to resolve our generational differences by having the older generation cede the stage. Maybe our causes would be best served if the most passionate advocates for them also turned out to be the most socially adept and presentable ones. But this isn’t generally how the world, or social progress, works. What drew me to Gilroy’s work in “Nightcrawler” was his uncompromising vision. “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is only the second movie he has directed. I didn’t expect him to go this soft on big ideas this quickly.