Dear Mr. Brody, 2021.
Directed by Keith Maitland.
A psychedelic journey into the heart (and bank account) of Michael Brody, Jr., the hippie-millionaire who offered the world peace for the price of a postage stamp.
The new documentary from director Keith Maitland (Tower) boasts an absolutely remarkable hook, but the initial fascination of its bizarre story eventually gives way to something much sadder, and far more indicative of a society – a world, even – in deep dysfunction.
In 1970, 21-year-old margarine heir Michael Brody, Jr. announced that he was planning to give his $25 million fortune away to anyone who wrote to him with a genuine need for money. It goes without saying that the youngster’s plan quickly caught headlines and caused him to be mobbed by masses of needy people, it soon becoming clear that Brody underestimated the world’s dire need for more than their lot.
Brody tragically died by suicide just three years later, but more recently, a treasure trove of almost 35,000 unopened letters written to Brody were uncovered by Melissa Robyn Glassman, an assistant to prolific Hollywood producer Ed Pressman. Pressman was planning to make a film based on Brody’s life but eventually shelved it, and after Glassman discovered the long-forgotten letters, she went about opening and reading every single one – a task she’s still completing as I write this review, but many of which are featured here.
We sadly live in a society where the first response to someone giving their riches away is – “why?” We’re so thoroughly conditioned to expect a scam or reject the notion of true selflessness that a figure like Brody immediately rouses suspicion. Though in fairness, Brody’s true motives are in fact vague; it seems he wanted to set an example for the rest of the rich while assuaging his own wealthy guilt, but it is also impossible to ignore the impact of his PCP abuse and questionable mental health.
It was only inevitable that his mission would spin out of control; soon enough people pulled guns on him at his home, responding to letters became a sleep-depriving chore, and the media even began to turn on him with claims of having embellished his true wealth. Within just a week of Brody starting his movement, it had imploded, and his story was quickly forgotten by most – at least until he took his life by gunshot amid an avalanche of personal turmoil in 1973.
As a profile of Brody this is a haunting and often upsetting film about a man whose own ambition for a better world perhaps swallowed him whole, but the meat of Maitland’s doc truly lies in the contents of the letters sent to him by the public.
Though Brody and his team attempted to filter out scammers, the majority of the letters in fact appear to be genuine; modest requests to help them pay bills, clear debt, and support their families. But because most of the featured letters were never read by Brody, they remain heartbreaking time capsules of dreams unfulfilled, and we as viewers can only wonder what happened to these people left struggling in 1970.
Maitland’s real pièce de résistance, then, is in tracking down several of the individuals who wrote letters to Brody and having them both open and read them aloud for the first time on camera. For most everyone featured, it is a supremely emotional and cathartic experience, returning to the person they were a near half-century prior, and in some cases reopening decades-old scars. In the doc’s most stunning moment, the filmmakers realise that one of their interviewees’ mothers also wrote a letter to Brody and promptly pass it to her.
These modern-day reunions with the authors aren’t merely cute spicings of human interest; the fact that many of the subjects continue to live modest or even meagre lives speaks to the challenges of upward mobility in society and a capitalist structure built to crush dreams. Given that wealth is being hoarded in larger numbers than human history has ever seen, and class divides are wider than ever globally, precious little has changed.
Brody’s method to bring about peace may have been unorthodox and perhaps misguided, and the full extent of his intentions will clearly never be known, but if nothing else he foregrounded that the society we live in, where basic comforts and dignities are denied to so many, is fundamentally broken.
The truth is that Brody may in part be everything he’s ever been labelled as; generous, naive, and deceptive. Similarly, the masses who wrote to him were comprised of scammers, the greedy, and many needy. But that Brody’s stunt was ever needed at all, and that people responded to it so vociferously, speaks volumes about not only America but the world at large.
Beyond the film’s attention-grabbing conceit is a complex and tragic story about a man consumed by his own demons and desires, and a society suffering under the crushing foot of capitalism.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.