21, by Albert W. Vogt III

One activity that my family often did together, particularly my mom’s side of my family, is play cards.  I am not sure if this was typical for other families, though I am sure we were not the only family doing so.  Most of the time, it was a version of rummy we called “Rummy 500.”  I wish I could remember the rules.  I say “version,” too, because there are many different ways of playing this game.  There was another game that we played called “Guts.”  It was introduced to me as a teenager, and it was my first real exposure to gambling.  I recall one particular hand I thought unbeatable, only to be trumped by the blind, a wily component to the play.  I did not like that feeling, and I largely stopped gambling after that day.  I bring this up by way of introducing today’s film, 21 (2008).  As the title would suggest, it is about blackjack, but hopefully I can convey some of the bigger things going on in it.

The focus of 21 is Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess).  The film is told as part of an oral essay delivered to admissions officer Bob Phillips (Jack Gilpin) at the Harvard University Medical School.  Ben is among the brightest of the brightest of the graduating seniors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and his longtime dream, what he has been working hard towards for years, is to matriculate to Harvard.  Because he cannot pay out of pocket, he is meeting with Bob in order to convince the admissions officer to grant Ben a scholarship.  Naturally, Bob wants to know what separates Ben from the other dozens of applicants.  Yes, Ben is gifted, but so are the others.  His friends are not all that remarkable, though they are dedicated.  The person who sees Ben’s potential is one of his mathematics professors at MIT, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey).  Unbeknownst to Ben, Micky has a purpose for Ben’s talent.  Micky is the head of what he and a select few refer to as MIT’s blackjack team.  One day while in the library, one of their number, Fisher (Jacob Pitts), approaches Ben in the library with an invitation.  Confused but curious, Ben follows and enters a room where Micky is teaching a few of his classmates how to count cards at a blackjack table.  Micky wants Ben to join, but Ben is suspicious and refuses.  Later at work, another member, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), visits Ben to try one more time.  This is the better tactic with him because he has had a crush on her for some time.  He accepts a place on the team with the caveat that as soon as he makes the money he needs to attend Harvard, he is done.  To fill this role, he must learn their system of communication.  The counting cards is the easy part as that is a matter of basic mathematics.  It is the way they relay signals to one another while on the casino floor that is the key to their operation.  One of them sits down at a table long enough to begin the count.  When that person crosses his or her arms behind the chair, this means they are ready for some serious wagering.  This is an involved process, but Micky assures Ben that they are doing nothing illegal.  He says this despite the fact that when they are in the casino, they often wear disguises and change their names.  Once Ben is ready, they head to Las Vegas, doing so practically every weekend.  This involves lying to Ben’s family friends.  When his mother Ellen (Helen Carey) tries to give him a large check for Harvard, Ben tells her that he does not need it because he has already earned the scholarship.  He gives his best friends, with whom he had been involved in a robotics competition, various excuses for where he is going on the weekends and thus missing out on their project.  What keeps him going is the steady success he is enjoying counting cards in Las Vegas.  Unfortunately, their team’s activities, especially his own, are not going unnoticed.  As the gambling industry switches to computers that can analyze behavior and catch people who are cheating, the person holding onto the old way of doing things is Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne).  The more they come to Sin City, the more Cole learns about their ways.  Before he can put a full stop to them, though, Ben breaks one of the team’s important rules: failing to walk away when the signal is given.  It ends up costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Micky decides that Ben is off the team.  Not only that, but Ben must make up the money he lost.  Though Ben tries to get the others to play under his guidance, it is at this moment that Cole catches Ben.  On top of the physical beating Ben receives, there is the emotional pain of coming home to a ransacked dorm room, the money he had stashed stolen, and a letter from the school saying that because he has not passed Micky’s course, he will not be graduating.  Humbled, he turns to the people he has wronged.  This includes his best friends, and seemingly Micky.  This last he asks for one last chance, a final score that would settle Ben’s supposed debt and set them up for life.  Before they can get too far ahead, though, Cole comes to shut them down.  Micky abandons them in the foot race, jumping in a limousine and telling the driver to head to the airport instead of their pre-arranged meeting place.  Instead, Micky finds one of Cole’s associates.  You see, Cole had struck a deal with Ben because it had been Micky who the casino enforcer had been after the entire time.  Though it also involved Ben handing over his winnings for the night, his life is essentially put back together.  This is a minor setback as he had brought in his friends and former teammates to set up Micky.  And this concludes Ben’s oral essay for why he should get into Harvard Medical School.

As these final scenes of 21 go by, the song playing in the background is “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones.  The irony is that Ben does, indeed, end up with everything he wanted.  He got the girl, gained entrance into Harvard Medical School, and he made some money to boot.  One might question, though, how he gained all this success.  In preparing to write this review, I looked up the Church’s stance on gambling.  Basically, it says there is no problem with gambling so long as it is done in moderation.  As a rule, I tend to avoid casinos and wagering.  Like the Rolling Stones song would suggest, some things we desire are beyond our human reach.  Everything that is beyond that reach, such as the outcome of the flip of a card, I prefer to leave to God.  A fun way of expressing this concept is through one discussed in the film: variable change.  Of course, the events that shape our lives are not random to God, but rather a part of a whole that He sees all as one.  From time immemorial, man has been trying to level the playing field with God, who is the only one that can see beyond the randomness, and predict the outcome of any event, big or small.  That is what Micky is selling to his students on the team, in a way, saying that their system makes playing blackjack into a mathematical formula with calculable results.  He is correct, to a certain extent, but it still takes a certain amount of chance into to find where you are in the card count.  In a larger sense, the danger with such a system is not knowing when to walk away, of knowing when you have what you need, to return to the Stones.  It is the lesson that Ben has to learn the hard way, and one I pray comes to you without too much hardship.

If you find 21 on Netflix like I did, it is worth a view.  There are a few scenes within strip clubs, but there is no nudity.  The lessons that Ben learns along the way are why I would recommend it.  Hopefully, it will not inspire you to become a gambler, or if you do, that you will have the safety of family and friends who will not smash your face in as happened to Ben.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s