2022 is but two months young, so declaring Dear Mr. Brody the year’s saddest film would be a mite premature. Better to say that it’s “the saddest film of 2022 so far” instead, leaving ample space for what remains on the release calendar to move audiences to tears beyond what director Keith Maitland wrings from them here. Still, it’s difficult to picture another film either as doleful as Dear Mr. Brody, or that’s dolefulness knows no bounds: Maitland traces heartache and desolation that dates back decades, and to voices nearly beyond count. Time plays no factor in his investigation. His subject is a lone man, but his focus is on the many, many people that man’s actions affected—or didn’t.
You may recall Maitland from his last movie, 2016’s extraordinary Tower, where he and an ensemble voice cast reenact the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting using rotoscope animation. Dear Mr. Brody pivots away from Tower’s tone and technique, leaning into the standard pairing of talking head interviews with archival footage. What Maitland does do to separate his film from other docs that rely on that structure is weave dramatization into documentation, breathing life into the woeful stories and dashed dreams of men, women and children mailing their pleas for relief to Michael Brody Jr. at the edge of desperation. Watching these letters imagined on screen as short films numbs the pain each expresses from intolerable to just barely tolerable, so look at it this way: Dear Mr. Brody could have hurt more than it does.
But it still hurts a hell of a lot. Brody was a flesh-and-blood person, but he was also the living embodiment of a class ideal that doesn’t exist: The ultra-rich philanthropist who cuts out the middleman and shares his wealth directly with the people who need it most. A basic synopsis makes Dear Mr. Brody sound like a portrait of white American male privilege under eccentricity’s influence. Back in 1970, Brody, hippie heir to the vast fortune of his grandfather, John F. Jelke, “the oleomargarine king,” publicly announced his intention to give away $25 million dollars to whoever needed it. His announcement led countless Americans to his doorstep and mailbox, burying him in letters about poverty, ill health, mere wanting and, in some cases, a combination of the three (usually the first two, because funny enough, they tend to go hand in hand).
What a miracle! What a comfort! A man of means reaching out to America’s commoners with promises of aid! Plenty of billionaire altruists are alive today, but their altruism has limits. Picture Bill Gates giving out his home address on TV and encouraging strangers to beg for money all day, every day, with no end in sight to the bottomless need for food, shelter and healthcare—all the fundamentals too many Americans take for granted. Dear Mr. Brody indulges the basic conceit. Brody is, after all, a character. A flower child in paisley who preaches love and peace while chartering whole damn airplanes for giggles. You’ll want to like him. You probably will like him.
Maitland appears taken with Brody himself—otherwise why make a movie about him? He knows what Brody represents is a figment, but it’s a figment worth trying to live up to all the same; the pledge Brody makes is logistically impossible to satisfy, and Dear Mr. Brody underlines that impossibility by speaking to movie producers Edward R. Pressman and Melissa Robyn Glassman. Glassman plays a critical role here: A few years ago, she found a hoard of unopened letters in Pressman’s possession and, with Maitland, tracked down their authors or their closest living relatives. In these scenes, the full sin of Brody’s broken word is crystallized. He gave people hope. He took that hope, too, and then died by suicide in 1973, all hope extinguished.
Dear Mr. Brody rightly complicates the events of Brody’s life and death. Nothing about Brody—his personality, his own tragic background, his best intentions, his mental health—was straightforward, so the film neither lionizes nor vilifies him. It only presents him as a rounded, knotty figure. The brunt of its empathy is reserved for the letter writers, whether they’re around or not. Maitland and Glassman track a few down and invite them to read their letters aloud in front of the camera, so long removed from when they composed them; other letters they just read themselves.
It’s amazing how much power Dear Mr. Brody generates in these simple scenes. All Maitland needs is to let people revisit their pasts, narrate their own words and, yes, ultimately break down in tears. There’s nothing they can do except cry, because there’s nothing they can do about what they lost, and what they never got to have, while they waited for assistance that was never going to come. Brody wasn’t a bad man, but he was broken, misguided and terribly, terribly naïve. What’s so surprising about Dear Mr. Brody is that the disadvantaged folks Brody promised he would help are, in the end, more memorable—and more worthy of remembrance—than Brody himself.
Director: Keith Maitland
Writer: Keith Maitland
Starring: Melissa Robyn Glassman, Renee Brody, Michael Aronin, Edward Pressman, Don Enright
Release Date: March 4, 2022
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.