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AFI Docs Review: “An Honest Liar”

This profile examines the “Amazing Randi,” a trained magician who made a career out of exposing the tricks of con artists and faith healers.

Image courtesy of AFI Docs.

A name like Randall James Hamilton Zwinge conjures an image of a circus tent with a guy in a cape guessing some sap’s hometown and weight, or perhaps conversing with a long-dead relative. Pass the hat for a few quarters or dollars, and then usher in the next crowd.

And for a long while, that is almost exactly what Zwinge did, calling himself the Amazing Randi and plying his trade as an escape artist and magician on TV and in public shows.

After a back injury cut short his Houdini-inspired career, Randi began to use his skills in a new way: to disprove those who made a living by claiming to have special abilities. He’s not breaking the magician’s code showing you how Three-Card Monte works; rather, he has spent decades exposing hucksters who claim that they have direct conversations with God or can move objects with their minds. Filmmakers Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom follow Randi as he pounds home his belief that these individuals are using magic not for entertainment and awe, but as a means of implanting false hope in their powers in order to fleece people out of their money.

This entertaining and engaging documentary focuses on two of Randi’s chief targets, Uri Geller and Peter Popoff. The latter feels like a mission of social responsibility; the former is more to scratch an annoying itch that won’t go away. Popoff was a hugely successful televangelist, and while Randi’s discovery that Popoff used a hidden earpiece to have people’s personal information fed to him may sound obvious and silly in 2014, in the 1980s it was a massive exposé.

Geller, on the other hand, is a “psychic” and “mystifer” who Randi says spouts the same lies so often he now believes them as truth. Randi would often appear on the Tonight show with Johnny Carson and The Merv Griffin Show the night after Geller wowed the host and audience with his telekinetic abilities. One of several clips features Randi replicating Geller’s spoon-bending trick for Barbara Walters, and the wave of instant disappointment and embarrassment that washes over her shows the power of the new age movement’s hold on society at the time.

Of course, any profile documentary eventually turns the focus toward the subject’s personal life, and An Honest Liar is no exception. Early in his debunking campaign, Randi enlisted the help of young man who posed as a medium and garnered a large following, despite it being a ruse conceived by Randi. The two form a lasting relationship that is tested by his citizenship status during the closing moments of the film, and after nearly 90 minutes of time spent with these two, one is inclined to agree with their sentiments that the only real truth is love.

Screening Friday, June 20, 4:30 PM at the Goethe-Institut, and Saturday, June 21, 9:30 PM at AFI Silver Theatre.

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