The past week, as much as any week within memory, has caused me to despair about the culture, the state of ethical values in America, and my own futile efforts to try to bring some light to the darkness. My mood was not only ravaged by the Penn State scandal (and Penn State’s students’ scandalous reaction to it), but also the continued drift and incompetence in our government and the lack of any apparent leadership or courage to address the problems of our economic system, other than to complain about them.
In such times—there have been others, though happily not many—my spirit urgently needs an infusion of inspiration and hope, and fast: as Al Pacino reminds us in “Scent of a Woman,” there is no prosthesis for an amputated spirit. This is when I turn to the movies that speak to me of courage, redemption, and ethical virtues validated. They are my lifeline; I can’t write or think about ethics from the bottom of a pit. I’ve got only a few days before Thanksgiving, after all. This is no time to be cynical and dubious about the course of humanity and the United States of America, a nation I love and admire.
Thus I am going to take a brief detour from the usual format of Ethics Alarms, with your leave and forgiveness, and share with you the fifteen movies that I will turn to as I try to recharge my enthusiasm, inspiration, and hope. Here are 1 though 7; the rest will be along shortly:
1. A Man For All Seasons (1966)
Hardly the most upbeat film to start the list, but probably the greatest ethics movie ever made.
Ethical issues highlighted: Integrity, honesty, courage, leadership, corruption, abuse of power.
Favorite quote: “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales?” [Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield)]
A close second, “A Christmas Carol” is a film of the greatest ethics story ever written, and even its familiarity doesn’t diminish Charles Dickens’ story’s power. This is the George C. Scott version, my personal favorite, but they’re all good…even the Mickey Mouse version. (My personal runner-up stars Mister Magoo.)
Ethical issues highlighted: Charity, kindness, empathy, love, greed, generosity, poverty
Favorite quote: “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link and yard by yard. Is its pattern strange to you or would you know the length of the strong coils you bear yourself? It was as full, as heavy, as long as this seven Christmas Eves ago, you have labored on it since, it is a ponderous chain!” [ Marley’s Ghost (Frank Finlay)]
3. Casablanca (1942)
If “A Man For All Seasons” isn’t the greatest ethics movie ever made, this is, perhaps because it’s the greatest movie ever made, period. Among its many quirky delights: the most enjoyable character in this idealistic movie is the most cynical one in it.
Ethical issues highlighted: Patriotism, loyalty, hypocrisy, corruption, abuse of power, courage, redemption, betrayal, sacrifice, kindness, sympathy, love.
Favorite quote: “I’m saying it because it’s true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” [ Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart)]
4. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
This is director Frank Capra’s immortal reminder of what representative democracy is supposed to aspire to, as a naive, idealistic U.S. Senator tries to stand up to greed, graft and a manipulative press. Best of all, the movie has the perfect solution for the Senate’s current deadlock problem: return the filibuster to the way it used to be. Make ’em keep talking until they drop—just like Jimmy Stewart. With Harry Caray Sr. as the best Vice President ever.
Ethical issues highlighted: Honesty, politics, integrity, fairness, citizenship, caring, patriotism, hypocrisy, corruption, abuse of power, courage, betrayal
Favorite quote: “Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties.” [ Jefferson Smith (James Stewart)]
5. 1776 (1972)
There are several ethics-centered musicals that could go here, including “Mary Poppins” and “The Music Man.” I settled on “1776,” despite its many liberties with the historical record (like making Richard Henry Lee a ridiculous bumpkin), because it preserves William Daniels’ definitive portrayal of John Adams, because it puts all the dinner theater productions to shame, because there are few performances in the history of Hollywood musicals more powerful than John Cullum’s rendition of “Molasses to Rum to Slaves,” and because, dammit, it chokes me up at the end every single time I see it.
Ethical issues highlighted: Integrity, freedom, politics, negotiation, democracy, compromise, fairness, citizenship, caring, patriotism, hypocrisy, courage, love, perseverance, leadership, slavery.
Favorite quote: “That’s probably true, but we won’t hear a thing, we’ll be long gone. Besides, what would posterity think we were? Demi-gods? We’re men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed. First things first, John. Independence; America. If we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make? [ Benjamin Franklin (Howard DaSilva), answering Adams’ protest that if the Declaration permits slavery, “posterity will never forgive us.”]
6. The Natural (1984)
The movie pretty much sums up what baseball means to me: character, accountability, perseverance, redemption, hope. The same applies to any sport you love. The important lesson, here and elsewhere, is not to let the sport make you forget what is really important.
Ethical issues highlighted: Honesty, temptation, dedication, character, integrity, courage, responsibility, accountability, forgiveness, redemption, corruption, humility.
Favorite quote: “You know, I believe we have two lives…The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.” [ Iris Gaines (Glen Close)]
7. Twelve Angry Men (1957)
An ethics movie that features a jury acting unethically (a jury is not supposed to use evidence that was never presented at trial) in pursuit of justice, “Twelve Angry Men” explores the complex intersection of bias, reason and fairness. It is a source of amazement to me how many people haven’t seen this film.
Ethical issues highlighted: Bias, justice, crime, the death penalty, mercy, empathy, fairness, the Golden Rule, prejudice, compromise, juries, the law, juries.
Favorite quote: “It’s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don’t really know what the truth is. I don’t suppose anybody will ever really know. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we’re just gambling on probabilities – we may be wrong. We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don’t know. Nobody really can. But we have a reasonable doubt, and that’s something that’s very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s SURE. We nine can’t understand how you three are still so sure. Maybe you can tell us.” [ Juror #8 ( Henry Fonda)]