Monday on PBS: James Randi in An Honest Liar

Vimeo // Justin Weinstein
Vimeo // Justin Weinstein / Vimeo // Justin Weinstein

Monday night on PBS's Independent Lens: An Honest Liar, the story of The Amazing Randi. My three-word review: Please watch this. More details are below, of course. You should check PBS showtimes to find out when it airs in your market, but Monday, March 28, 2016 is the air date. Check the bottom of this post for more, including non-PBS places to watch the program.

Here's a trailer:


Randall James Hamilton Zwinge was born in Toronto in 1928. He quit school at age 17 to join "the carnival" and devote his life to becoming a magician, styling himself after Harry Houdini. Eventually he arrived at the stage name "The Amazing Randi," and went by "James Randi" in other professional contexts. He's a magician, an author, a prestidigitator, an intellectual, and his facial hair is fantastic.

An Honest Liar describes Randi's early life, showing plenty of black-and-white TV footage of his amazing escape acts. Later in Randi's life, he gave up the derring-do of extreme escapes and focused on a rather more profound topic: exposing paranormal fraud. The James Randi Educational Foundation famously offers a One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, offering a million bucks to anyone who can prove paranormal or supernatural abilities under controlled testing. The challenge has been around since the mid 1960s in various forms, and no one has taken the money.

There's much more to Randi's life, and his interests, but I'll leave that to this excellent documentary to relate. I'd like to move onto the most interesting aspect of the film: issues of deception.


“Magicians are the most honest people in the world. They tell you they’re gonna fool you, and then they do it.” –James Randi

Randi is famous for opening most of his magic acts by freely admitting that he's about to deceive the audience—for the purpose of entertainment—and then masterfully engages in the deceit. As a person, Randi appears thoroughly obsessed with the issues of deception: When is it okay to lie? When does a lie begin to do harm? How can we protect the gullible from these lies?

It would be enough for a documentary simply to examine these issues, and this one does. But what makes An Honest Liar such a triumph is that it finds Randi at a moment in his personal life when a great deception is being uncovered. (No spoilers here; don't read other reviews if you want to avoid massive spoilers!) The raw fact here is that there's one major deception Randi did not tell the world about. So how does that fit with his fanatical devotion to exposing lies? That's what makes this documentary sing, and turns it from a mere biography into a serious intellectual work.

I want to be clear: This film is not an indictment of Randi. Like the best documentaries, it contains enough ambiguity to allow viewers to confront the issues and decide what to believe. In the days since I watched the film (I actually watched it twice in one day, because it was that good), it keeps popping into my head. In addition to being fun to watch, educational, and generally well-made, this documentary has made its way into the back of my brain, challenging me to make judgments and consider it over and over. This is what I want documentaries to do.

Here's a set of quotes from the film that articulate some of the most important points in it:

Jamy Ian Swiss: "People think they believe what they choose to believe. We don't. We mostly believe what we need to believe." James Randi: "The public really doesn't listen when they're being told straightforward facts. They would rather accept what some charismatic character tells them, than really think about what the truth might be."


PBS stations differ, so check showtimes to find out when it airs in your market. If PBS isn't your thing, the documentary is currently streaming on Netflix (at least in the US), and is available on the major video-on-demand services. You can also learn more about the film from its website.