Randall James Hamilton Zwinge, better known as The Amazing Randi, is one of the greatest and most renowned magicians in the world. In his day, he would amaze and confound audiences with his Houdini-like escapes and tricks. Later on in his life, also like Harry Houdini, Randi would serve the same masses that he used to deceive by routinely exposing fraudulent clairvoyants and debunking phony psychics. Because of this, he was known as one of the “good” magicians, an illusionist on the people’s side. The perfect name for a documentary about him is An Honest Liar.
An Honest Liar takes a look at the life and career of a man who considered himself a magician, conjurer, prestidigitator, illusionist, investigator, and debunker. The movie is produced and directed by Tyler Measom (Sons of Perdition) and Justin Weinstein (Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey), and edited by Greg O’Toole (After Tiller), and because it’s a documentary culled together from various sources to tell a story, all three filmmakers are given writing credit. The showmanship side of James Randi’s career is covered, with plenty of time devoted to his classic escape acts and his involvement in designing elaborate tricks such as those on shock-rocker Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies tour, but most of the movie covers his accomplishments off-stage.
Through taped interviews with those involved and archival news and television footage, An Honest Liar takes a look at some of the more famous cases in the life of Randi, including his debunking of the psychic Uri Gellar, his exposure of the faith healer Peter Popoff, and his famous Project Alpha, in which he planted two fake psychics into a “legitimate” paranormal research program. One by one, Randi brought the methods and techniques of predatory magicians and charlatans to light, making fools out of those who profited from the gullibility and desperation of others. James Randi subscribed to the credo that “no matter how smart or well-educated you are, you can be deceived.” He spent much of his life looking after those who couldn’t see through the charm and charisma of illegitimate occultists.
It is easy to tell from a viewing of An Honest Liar just how respected James Randi is. The film contains interviews with everyone from Alice Cooper to fellow illusionist Penn Jillette, from Mythbusters’ Adam Savage to Bill Nye the Science Guy. There’s even an interview with Randi’s arch-nemesis Uri Gellar, whom Randi spent much of his career traveling around the country debunking by performing his exact routine, even going so far as to write a book called “The Truth About Uri Gellar” that exposes the phony charlatan for the fraud that he was. Every interview, even the one with Gellar, shows admiration and appreciation for Randi and his work. Even his enemies love him.
At one point towards the home stretch in An Honest Liar, there is a decided shift in tone as the film tells a story about how The Amazing Randi apparently was fooled himself. Randi’s partner, a young artist named Jose Alvarez, harbored an interesting past in which Randi got caught up, and the movie goes from amusingly anecdotal to brutally honest, with Randi even breaking down during an interview with the filmmakers and imploring them not to use a particular segment where he talks about his relationship with Jose (in the end, Randi agreed to let the interview be included). It’s a drastic change from the Randi that is shown in the rest of the film, the confident stage performer being replaced by a sensitive old man.
An Honest Liar is especially fun for those who remember the cases; clips and snippets from seventies television shows like In Search Of…, To Tell the Truth, Real People, and 60 Minutes give the viewer a nostalgic look at a time when the mysterious still held a little bit of mystery. Even younger audiences will be able to find something to take away from An Honest Liar. The film can almost be seen as a companion piece to another recent documentary, Merchants of Doubt, which deals with big American corporations’ fleecing of the public. The principle is kind of the same; what Merchants of Doubt does for screwball pundits, James Randi did for phony psychics. In the end, it’ll make people happy that Randi was on their side – he was An Honest Liar.