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Sunday, December 9 , 2018, 11:59 pm | Fair 52º


Cinema in Focus: ‘21’

Gambling with our abilities for selfish gain can lead to regrettable outcomes and a lost cause.

3 Stars — Troubling

The temptation to use our abilities for selfish or illegal gain is always before us as human beings. We are most often able to withstand this temptation when we are mentored by honest and honorable people. But when a person of influence, such as a professor or coach, encourages us to use our intellectual or athletic gifts for selfish or even illegal purposes, then it is difficult to stand against such pressure. This is the lesson presented by Robert Luketic’s film 21.

Based on a true story, MIT professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) personifies the warning Jesus made when he said “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” (Matthew 18:7) Having a brilliant mind himself, Rosa was tempted as a young man to use his math skill to win large amounts of money in Las Vegas at the game of blackjack, or Twenty-One. When the casinos shut him down for “counting cards” and would not allow him to play, Rosa did not stop. Since he could not play himself, he used his access to the best minds in the nation to tempt MIT students to play in his place. Creating a “team” of players, he took 50 percent of their “guaranteed” winnings.

Coming from a poor family headed by a single mother and longing to go to Harvard Medical School, Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is recruited by Rosa. Needing $300,000 to go to Harvard, Ben is susceptible to Rosa’s invitation, but declines his offer. His own sense of honor seems to protect him. But when the girl of his dreams invites him, he succumbs to the temptation. What happens next is full of intrigue and consequences as Campbell falls into the grasp of gambling’s allure with its greedy extravagant promises and addictive processes. The film is very well done.

The fact that children and youth are most susceptible to temptation is one reason why society attempts to keep young people from having access to harmful experiences until they reach at least the age of 21. That this age is no guarantee that a person has matured to a point where he or she will not fall for the allure of temptation or the glitter of “sin city,” is clearly shown by this film. That this story is based on a true event only underscores its authentic portrayal.

This film demonstrates that our abilities are given to us for the common good of all humanity. When we use them for selfish gain, we will find ourselves morally and relationally impoverished. That is a truth we need to hear often as we stand against the temptations of this world.


When Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) explains to the casino owner that he knows how to count cards, the owner asks him why he heads security if he has that ability.  He responds by saying he likes to be on the casino’s side as they hustle the people.  Do you believe casinos are hustling the people or only providing entertainment?

When Campbell’s girlfriend, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), explains that her father’s blackjack addiction cost their family dearly, she was describing how addictions overtake a person’s life.  Have you ever experienced the temptation of gambling?  How did you keep from becoming addicted?

The kleptomania of Choi (Aaron Yoo) is ignored by Rosa.  Do you see his behavior as a symptom of his greed or something else?

Since all of these students were over 21, Professor Rosa was not doing anything illegal, except by not paying taxes on his “winnings.”  But do you believe there should be a law against professors using students of any age for personal gain?

Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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