Ethics at the Movies

Filmsboth new and oldremind us that the nature of our actions informs the nature of the consequences, whether in our personal lives or at work

Hollywood typically releases its strongest Academy Award contenders at the end of the year. Having been to advance screenings of many of these films, I am pleased to report that this is an unusually good year for North American cinema. It's true that a lot of these films, such as No Country for Old Men, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Gone Baby Gone, and Eastern Promises are disturbing, violent, and not for the squeamish. At the same time, many are rich in moral complexity, and I would like to discuss a few of these from an ethical perspective. The films I have in mind are not about business per se, but all have profound implications for the work we do.

SPOILER ALERT: I will have to reveal some of the plot elements of the following films, some new, some old: The Kite Runner, Cassandra's Dream, No Country for Old Men, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, It's a Wonderful Life, The Red Balloon, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point. I will keep these revelations to an absolute minimum, but if you wish to see any of the above films without knowing what is in store, you might wish to read this column after you've seen them. (Because I'm notifying you up front, and you have the option to continue reading or not, these spoilers aren't in the same ethical category that I discussed in So, Does Harry Potter Live? (, 7/18/07). Rather than discussing the films one by one, I'll focus on the ethical issues they raise and what they imply for the business world.


It seems obvious to the point of cliché to state that everything we do has repercussions. A single choice we make can drastically affect the future of a great number of people, sometimes in harsh and irreversible ways. This is the theme of The Kite Runner, Cassandra's Dream, and No Country for Old Men. In Marc Forster's The Kite Runner, based on the best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini, Amir, a well-to-do boy in Afghanistan, witnesses his best friend, Hassan, being raped and does nothing to intervene.

Enraged by his friend's failure to fight back, Amir then adds insult to injury by challenging Hassan to stand up for himself, but it simply isn't in Hassan's nature to return violence with violence. We follow Amir's journey to the U.S. and his rise to success as a writer, but the way he treated Hassan continues to haunt him into adulthood. Whether Amir is able to make peace with himself for the mistakes in his past is the dramatic question the film poses—and satisfyingly answers.

Similarly, when George Bailey, the character played by Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, reaches the end of his rope and blurts out, "I wish I'd never been born," Clarence, his guardian angel, shows George what the world would have been like if he had not been given the gift of life. His peaceful town becomes a sleazy, violent place and many of the people in George's life end up sad, angry, or alone. His brother Harry dies at the age of 9 because George isn't there to rescue him during a childhood sledding accident, and thus Harry never grows up to be a Navy fighter pilot and save a transport ship full of soldiers.

"Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn't there to save them because you weren't there to save Harry," Clarence tells George. Being a force for good has a ripple effect for years, just as being a force for evil does. (Thanks are due to for helping me remember the details of It's a Wonderful Life.)

The negative consequences of our actions are thrown into sharp relief in Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream.

The premise of No Country is simple: A man named Llewelyn Moss finds a briefcase filled with money and makes off with it. Having stumbled onto a drug deal gone awry, Moss thinks he can make a clean getaway with the loot, but his every move is followed by a fellow named Anton Chigurh, the most vivid and brutal screen villain we've seen in years. On the surface a thriller, No Country is actually a philosophical meditation on free will, fate, aging, and death.

In Cassandra's Dream, two brothers choose to commit murder to pay off a debt. One brother has no qualms about the act, while the other is haunted to the point of a mental breakdown. The story has narrative similarities to two of Allen's previous films, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, but Allen seems to be getting less cynical as he grows older: In Crimes the villain literally gets away with murder, while the final shot of Match Point suggests that the murderer will be haunted by his act for a long time and is changed for the worse. In his latest film, Allen shows what one would like to believe is the true fate of someone who commits murder: a downward spiral ending in an untimely and violent death. There can be no freedom, Allen seems to be saying, for someone who commits an evil act that cannot be reversed. In Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, two brothers also resort to crime, with disastrous consequences for their entire family.


Two films now in theaters ask this question and have an inspiring answer. "You don't vanquish hate with hate. You vanquish it with love. You don't end darkness with darkness. You end it with light." So says Pete Seeger (to whom Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen acknowledge a huge debt of gratitude in Jim Brown's documentary, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.) Eighty-eight years old and still going strong, Seeger remains committed to making a positive difference through music and political activism. Whether you share his politics or not, it is hard not to be moved by a man who has stayed true to his deeply held moral values throughout his long life and whose passion is to make the world a better place for all.

Another film rooted in the past but making a comeback appearance in a beautifully restored print is Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon (yes, the film you saw in third grade). It is the rare film—or, more broadly, the rare story—in which the conflict is resolved without force. Instead of meeting violence with violence, the boy in Balloon flees from the bullies who want to destroy his new companion. Both in real life and fantasy, we are so accustomed to force ending a conflict that it comes as a shock in “Balloon” to see the hero refuse to return hatred with more of the same.

Yet the boy comes off as neither cowardly nor hopelessly naïve. In fact, his decision not to use aggression as a solution is rewarded when the boy is spirited away by dozens of colorful balloons. Much more than a film for children, The Red Balloon challenges us to consider other, better ways of dealing with the problems in our lives. There are times to stand up to violence, and there are times to turn away from it, too.


Consider how often you encounter hostility and nastiness in your daily life. Someone cuts you off on the highway. Your co-worker is in a foul mood and makes your day miserable with constant complaints. A competitor engages in unfair business practices and is doing well as a result. It is easy to give in to the impulse to return unkind or unjust actions. You hurl insults at the rude driver; you tell your co-worker to shut up; you consider having your business do the same kinds of things that your competitor is doing so that you can get ahead.

However, there are long-term consequences of these responses worth considering. You will probably feel worse, not better, afterward. The problem you want to address will remain, and you may even have made the situation worse. Most significantly, you are breaking faith with the fundamental principles of ethics (, 1/11/07) that not only promote an orderly society and a flourishing private sector but serve to bring out the best in ourselves.

The above films remind us—and we need constant reminding, because it is so easy to forget—that actions have consequences and that the nature of our actions determines the nature of the consequences. We are free to choose good or evil, but the wrong choices have implications that are far reaching, long lasting, and sometimes deadly.

Here is a radical idea: There is more to life than making money. Yes, money is good. It's great, in fact. But it is not, and should not be, the only thing that motivates us or gives our lives meaning. When the acquisition of wealth is the primary or sole reason behind the choices we make, it becomes easy to justify (or attempt to justify) anything, from being nasty to bending the rules of fair practice to, at the end of the line, engaging in the worst forms of behavior.

What does it mean to be a human being? It means, in part, making choices that promote, not diminish, everyone, including ourselves, even if we could enrich our lives in the short run by stealing when no one is looking, or get ahead for the next couple of quarters or years by using the same dirty tricks the competition uses, or, even get away with murder sometimes. A few noteworthy films this holiday season suggest, however, we take the low road at our own peril. A couple of them even tell us we can redeem ourselves and renounce the misdeeds of our past, and it is never too late to try.

To all my readers: Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah ('08), Blessed Kwaanza, Happy New Year, and all good tidings to you this holiday season. See you next year.

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