The great documentaries not only enlighten, but inspire conversation, debate, and further research into the topic. They should reveal something of the world or the human condition, and, like any good film, elicit an emotional response. An Honest Liar does just that. Arguments will be had about the subject, The Amazing Randi, and what the filmmakers’ motives may have been while constructing this narrative. In light of many recent critically-acclaimed docs that merely worship their subjects while glossing over any possible negatives (looking at you, The Punk Singer), it’s refreshing that An Honest Liar addresses some of Randi’s contradictions head on. Directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein do a nice job of structuring the movie as a slow reveal broken up into chapters based on the famous skeptic’s most notable achievements.
Writing about this film without giving too much away is difficult; the less you know, the better it will be. The Amazing Randi is a magician and escape artist who gained popularity in the 50s and 60s by modeling his career after Houdini. Like that influential magician, Randi spent his later years on a personal mission to debunk psychics, channelers, and modern-day spiritualists (evangelical faith healers). He has taken personal offense to these charlatans using an illusionist’s skills to swindle the vulnerable, rather than entertain the masses. Having started his career as a mentalist, Randi felt the power that comes from an audience’s belief in your “supernatural” abilities, but chose not to prey upon others for financial gain. One such “psychic,” Uri Geller, becomes Randi’s archenemy; he makes the rounds on every early 80s TV talk and late-night show (including numerous spots on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show), preforming the same “miracles.” Randi’s exposure of mainstream media’s gullibility and complete lack of fact-checking is especially pertinent in the current age of infotainment. This, and his supreme and continued dedication to science, is what endears Randi to you.
The beauty of An Honest Liar is in its honesty and its lies. While clearly favoring their subject, Measom and Weinstein give his greatest opponents their time to speak, and do not shy away from asking Randi at least a few difficult questions. There are moments when you want to hoist the petite octogenarian up on your shoulders and parade him through the town square, and others when his methods seem a little too cruel and personal imperfections are laid bare. The film brings up some age old questions: Do the ends really justify the means? Do the faults of the individual taint their altruistic deeds? With such interesting subject matter and a plethora of archival footage to choose from, the 92 minute run-time is too short. More hard questions should have been asked, and more achievements featured. Given that the movie was partly funded through Kickstarter, a lack of budget was most likely to blame. However, not since Orson Welles’ F is For Fake (1973) has there been a better examination of what makes a fraud, the power of illusion, the construction of a hoax, and the public’s desire to be deceived.