Focus is from a 1945 novel by Arthur Miller. Set in New York during World War II, it is a tale of anti-Semitism, and even more so a variant of anti-Semitism that doesn’t get nearly as much attention—at least I have rarely if ever encountered it in life or art—which is discrimination against non-Jews who look Jewish.
The protagonist Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy) is a mousy fellow with a white collar job in personnel. He lives with his invalid mother in a Brooklyn neighborhood that turns out to be primarily full of bigots, with one Jewish resident who runs a newsstand on the corner.
Newman is upbraided at his job for being too lax in keeping Jews—including Jews who try to pass for non-Jews—from being hired, something that is evidently common practice in the business world of the time. He tries to do better, turning down the next applicant for a secretarial position, Gertrude (Laura Dern), because he can’t tell for sure if she is Jewish or not and he doesn’t want to take any chances. He immediately feels guilty about it and tries to catch her before she leaves the building but fails.
Things get worse for him when he acquires a new pair of glasses and a visiting bigwig from higher up in the company decides he himself looks entirely too Jewish. (Lawrence apparently had some premonition that something like this could happen, as he had resisted getting glasses as long as possible.) There’s no indication that the bigwig or anyone else in the company believes Lawrence actually is Jewish; their concern is that his looking Jewish to others will create a bad impression of the company. They are perfectly willing to keep him on, and even at the same salary, but only if he accepts a transfer to a position where he will not be seen by the public. He indignantly refuses and quits.
He eventually encounters Gertrude again—ironically she helps him get a job at the (Jewish-owned) company where she was subsequently hired—they commence a romance, and soon they get married and she comes to live with him.
They come under increasing pressure throughout the film to join their neighbors in their fascist, anti-Semitic activities—which include seeking to drive the newsstand owner from the neighborhood—and the longer they resist the more they become victims of suspicion and eventually violence.
One thing I find interesting is that none of the anti-Semites sees any irony or any disconnect between their philosophy and their country’s participation in a war against Nazism. To the contrary, they look forward to when “our boys” get home, as they expect to get their cooperation in “cleaning up” America by ridding it of Jews and other undesirables the way they are currently cleaning up the world.
Lawrence and his wife represent certain possible attitudes toward these fascist sentiments. Interestingly, both are at least somewhat anti-Semitic in the sense of believing negative stereotypes of Jews. Lawrence, reluctantly after being prodded, shares with his Jewish neighbor why Jews are distrusted and discriminated against, stating as simply an unfortunate fact that they are dishonest in business and such.
His beliefs of that kind, though, don’t seem to result in his having a more personal, emotional distaste for Jews. He interacts with said Jewish neighbor on quite comfortable and friendly terms, for instance. (That is, when he is not being watched by his neighbors who want to make sure he’s not fraternizing with their enemy.)
Gertrude maybe has a bit more such distaste. Or at least she is a bit more personally offended when she is mistaken for a Jew. Both are bothered by it, but I think for Lawrence it’s almost all a pragmatic concern about how the erroneous perception affects his life. For Gertrude it’s mostly that, but you sense she feels it as an insult as well.
There’s also a difference in how they prefer to deal with the threat they live under. Neither one is the sort who would want to join the violent mob their neighbors are forming or anything like that, but Gertrude is more adamant that they not be seen as opposing it. Lawrence has to really be pushed before he responds one way or another, as his tendency is to avoid all conflict with either side and just to remain non-committal until hopefully it all blows over. But Gertrude keeps stressing upon him the need to be proactive, to attend their neighbors’ fascist rallies and such to establish his bona fides even if he has no intention of following through.
She, for instance, makes it a point to cozy up to their next door neighbor—one of the more slimy anti-Semites—and “casually” note how much she appreciates the radio broadcasts of (famous anti-Semite and fascist) Father Coughlin. She wants to make sure he gets the message—and passes it along to his comrades—that she is certainly not Jewish and in fact has the “right” opinions of Jews.
But the message of Focus seems to be that in the end you can’t be neutral, you can’t just refuse to participate in evil but also not actively oppose it, and forever dodge the consequences of looking the other way. Eventually one side or the other will issue you a “You’re either with us or against us” challenge. Or your conscience will.
Focus held my interest reasonably well. Macy and Dern are both actors I tend to enjoy, the topic of people suffering due to being mistakenly identified as belonging to a hated group is an important one and one that hasn’t been overdone, the values embodied in the film are certainly unobjectionable, and the story has some suspense to it and moves along entertainingly enough. But for whatever reason it isn’t a movie that hit me at a deep level, or one that I find I have a great deal to say about. It’s decent, but not something I would enthusiastically urge people to see.