Producers: Melissa Robyn Glassman, Megan Gilbride, Keith Maitland and Sarah Wilson   Director: Keith Maitland   Screenplay: Keith Maitland   Cast: Renée Brody, Michael Aronin, Melissa Robyn Glassman, Edward R. Pressman, Don Enright, Ed Dwyer and Michael James Brody III   Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment/Discovery+

Grade: B+

The story of Michael J. Brody, Jr., isn’t exactly unknown, remaining one of those oddities of seventies American life that can serve as a cautionary tale from a variety of angles.  But Keith Maitland (“Tower”) gives the tale of American wealth, celebrity, desperation and hope a fresh twist in this absorbing, and ultimately quite moving, documentary.

On January 10, 1970, Brody, a twenty-one-year old aspiring musician who had recently inherited a substantial sum from the estate of his grandfather John F. Jelke, the so-called oleomargarine king, and had just married a young woman named Renée DuBois, announced that he was going to give away his fortune, which he said was in excess of $25 million, to anyone who asked for it.  His aim, he explained to the news media, was to promote peace and happiness, though also, perhaps, his own celebrity and music career as well.

Naturally he was deluged with requests from people, who showed up at his residences and an office he set up and waited in long lines to make their pitches, or simply wrote him letters.  He tossed tens and twenties to crowds on the street and wrote checks to others, though the bank refused to honor many of them.  Some of the letters were read, but most remained sealed.

The whole episode, including an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and the hasty release of a record, lasted barely three weeks.  The pressure—and a good deal of drug use—quickly took its toll on the shaggy-haired hippie.  By January 20 the media were filled with stories about his giveaway being a scam and questioning his mental health, and his ability to deal with the situation he’d created dissipated.  By the spring he’d had a breakdown and been remanded to an institution, and over the next three years his circumstances deteriorated.  He died by suicide in January, 1973.

Maitland, along with editor Austin Reedy, use archival footage, staged recreations and some animated inserts to relate the story of this unhappy man, a curious mixture of idealism and hucksterism, in swift but incisive strokes.  They also include excerpts from newly-shot interviews with his widow and son, among others, that provide insight and add anecdotal detail.  (Maitland and producer Sarah Wilson served as cinematographers.)

But what turns what might have been just a conventional documentary about a strange, though telling, historical episode into something emotionally compelling is that Maitland decided to track down writers of some of the unanswered letters to Brody (or, in some cases, their descendants) and film their reactions to reading them now.  (Thousands of them were kept by Brody’s son, who has assiduously collected material about his father, and by film producer Edward Pressman, who contemplated making a movie about Brody.)  The result is revealing and often deeply touching, a real-life portrait of the yearning that lay behind the American dream then, and of course still does, and far more often results in disappointment than fulfillment.  A score by Osei Essed nicely complements the visuals.    

In “Tower” Maitland imaginatively thrust viewers into a horrific aspect of American culture and helped them share to some extent in its impact on those who actually experienced it.  Here he performs a similar act of alchemy, and though the episode he recreates can’t compare with a mass shooting, it’s perhaps equally revealing of the national psyche.  This is a surprisingly affecting treatment of a fleeting moment in American history that offers a glimpse into the national character.