Movie Review: An Honest Liar

James Randi is one of the greatest people who ever lived. The amount of time and dedication he puts into his work is staggering. For the uninitiated, James Randi is a magician, rivaled only by Harry Houdini himself. But unlike many magicians, Randi always proclaimed that he was in fact just tricking people, that he used elaborate setups to con them into believing that he possessed supernatural powers and he always clearly labelled himself as a fake.

So obviously, when you have a man with such a strong moral compass such as Randi who also happens to be the most talented man in his field currently alive, you basically have the ingredients of a real-life superhero. Though his superpower is basically just his superior intellect, the ability to use logic and the scientific method and his desire to uncover the truth.

An Honest Liar is a portrait of Randi’s life, how he always strove to debunk charlatans and reveal their heinous ulterior motives. This leads him directly to Peter Popoff, one of the most infamous faith healers. You know, those guys who sell out auditoriums in order to heal them on stage and rid them of their problems and afflictions. He would call out their names, addresses and problems that apparently came to him from the almighty himself. That or from an earpiece through which he received information about the people in the hall from his wife, who collected forms prior to the show where the people had to write down their names, addresses and problems. See how that works?

Same thing goes with his most famous rivalry, the one between him and none other than the mighty destroyer of silverware all over the planet, that bug-eyed hack that goes by the name of Uri Geller. A petty magician that used his tiresome routine of bending spoons to garner fame with the support of parapsychologists from the Stanford Research Institute. And it amazes me that a University would actually teach people in parapsychology and other matters of supernatural mumbo-jumbo, especially in a field where you will only find people who actively emit confirmation bias out of every pore. This is like offering university degrees on mythical monsters such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster and expecting alumni to be anything but hell-bent on proving their existence.

Randi easily debunked this charlatan as well and it’s amazing how the public thanked him for it. He got criticized for telling people the truth, for robbing them of their nonsensical faith and he got belittled when he proved that a magician could pull off the same tricks as the supposed psychic, who wields telekinesis to move around tiny objects instead of using it to contain hazardous oil spills in the oceans and has never used his precognitive abilities to win the lottery and give money to the poor. Because for some reason, when someone claims actual supernatural powers, it’s somehow more impressive to accomplish these miniscule feats than when a magician does it.

The documentary does however also highlight some darker sides about Randi. There aren’t many, but his methods to debunk these phonies do at least scratch the lines between good intentions and immoral behavior. The best example is his Project Alpha that sought to recreate Uri Geller’s career trajectory by sending two people trained by him to some parapsychologists whom were also instructed by Randi himself about how to actually deal with them and how to set up proper experiments and controls. The confirmation bias from these so called learned men and women lead the obvious result where they were praised as the next big thing, until they actually came out next to Randi himself and admitted to being magicians and nothing more. But in the process, people did have mental breakdowns over this because they took these issues so seriously and both participating magicians (who were both barely 21 years old at the time) felt really bad about doing it after the fact.

These moral grey-areas notwithstanding, James Randi is still one of my personal heroes. As you might have guessed from the way I chose to write about certain people here, I have absolutely nothing but contempt for people like Popoff and Geller, who claim to possess supernatural powers and trick people into believing that they have the ability to help them. Popoff especially is an affront to everything I believe in, going so far as to instruct his followers to toss out their medication because Jesus the almighty protagonist that couldn’t even survive his own fantasy novel is there to heal them.

An Honest Liar is a pretty good documentary that touches on a lot of subjects, not the least of which is Randi’s homosexuality that gets characterized as well. It is quite astonishing for him to come out as gay at the age of 81 and later marrying his partner of 25 years. It’s a nice touch of personal drama interspersed into a story that is mostly about past events. Especially when his now husband turns out to be an illegal immigrant who during the shooting of the documentary got arrested because the authorities found that out after a quarter of a century.

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