I am compiling a new list of great ethics movies to help those troubled by the recently completed Presidential campaign, the election and its aftermath. I haven’t decided whether to reveal it piecemeal, or collectively as I have before, but I do need to begin by presenting the previous list of 25, actually the combination of several previous posts. Ethics films I have covered individually since those lists debuted, like Spotlight and Bridge of Spies, will eventually be added.
For now, here’s the top 25. Don’t pay attention to the order.
1. Spartacus (196o)
The raw history is inspiring enough: an escaped gladiator led an army of slaves to multiple victories over the Roman legions in one of the greatest underdog triumphs ever recorded. Stanley Kubrick’s sword-and-sandal classic has many inspiring sequences, none more so than the moment when Spartacus’s defeated army chooses death rather than to allow him to identify himself to their Roman captors (“I am Spartacus!”)
Ethical issues highlighted: Liberty, slavery, sacrifice, trust, politics, courage, determination, the duty to resist abusive power, revolution, love, loyalty.
Favorite quote: “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” [Spartacus (Kirk Douglas)]
2. Hoosiers (1986)
“Hoosiers” is loosely based on true story, but its strength is the way it combines classic sports movie clichés—the win-at-all-costs coach down on his luck, the remote superstar, over-achieving team—into a powerful lesson: it isn’t the final victory that matters most, but the journey to achieving it.
Ethical issues highlighted: Forgiveness, generosity, leadership, kindness, courage, loyalty, diligence, redemption.
Favorite quote: “If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re gonna be winners.” [ Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman)]
3. Babe (1995)
A wonderful movie about the virtues of being nice, the greatest civility film of all time. Second place: “Harvey.”
Ethical issues highlighted: Civility, kindness, reciprocity, loyalty, courage, love, friendship, bigotry, bias.
Favorite quote: “Fly decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that sheep were stupid, and there was nothing that could convince her otherwise…The sheep decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that wolves were ignorant, and there was nothing that could convince them otherwise” The Narrator (Roscoe Lee Browne)
4. It’s A Wonderful Life (1939)
(I just re-posted the Ethics Alarms Ethics Guide to IAWL here.)
Ethical issues highlighted: Generosity, competence, trust, sacrifice, gratitude, kindness, honesty, integrity, fairness, citizenship, caring, greed, abuse of power, courage, desperation, loyalty, love.
Favorite quote: “Just a minute… just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You’re right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was… why, in the 25 years since he and his brother, Uncle Billy, started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn’t that right, Uncle Billy? He didn’t save enough money to send Harry away to college, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what’s wrong with that? Why… here, you’re all businessmen here. Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? You… you said… what’d you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken down that they… Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about… they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!
5. Apollo 13 (1995)
The best of human character and spirit comes to the fore when tested by crisis in Ron Howard’s masterpiece about a national disaster turned into a triumph of ingenuity and persistence.
Ethical issues highlighted: Courage, leadership, selflessness, trust, respect, love, competence, responsibility, diligence.
Favorite quote: “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.” [ Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), responding the NASA director’s concern that Apollo 13 is “the worst disaster NASA has ever faced.”]
6. Shane (1953)
Framed in the historic ethical conflict between ranchers and homesteaders during the Western expansion, the greatest of all Western dramas presents a wandering gunslinger as a noble American knight, fighting for a way of life he knows he can never share.
Ethical issues highlighted: Zero-sum dilemmas, sharing, commerce, family, responsibility, violence, fidelity, temptation, community, bullying, cruelty, self-defense, love, sacrifice, redemption.
Favorite quote: “Joey, you grow up to be strong and straight. Now go home, and tell your mother, there are no more guns in the valley.” [Shane (Alan Ladd)]
7. Big Fish (2003)
A film for every child who has questioned a parent’s values, elegantly making the argument that truly ethical lives are not always apparent to outside observers.
Ethical issues highlighted: Fathers and sons, ambition, generosity, honesty, selfishness, judging others, fear, honor, nobility, relationships, love.
Favorite quote: “There’s a time when a man needs to fight, and a time when he needs to accept that his destiny is lost… the ship has sailed and only a fool would continue. Truth is… I’ve always been a fool.” [ Ed Bloom Sr. ( Albert Finney)]
8. Groundhog Day (1993)
What at first appears to be a light situation comedy ripens into a story about getting life right, as a self-centered jerk (Bill Murray in his finest role) is forced to learn that being fair, kind, honest and ethical really is the best way to live. He gets infinite chances. We don’t get nearly as many, but then, we get to watch the movie.
My mentor, Michael Daigneault, thought this was the best ethics movie of all time.
Ethical issues highlighted: Honesty, caring, integrity, charity, community, empathy, respect, fairness, love.
Favorite quote: I don’t deserve someone like you. But If I ever could, I swear I would love you for the rest of my life.” [ Phil Connors ( Bill Murray)]
9. 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)]
11. 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)]
12. 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)]
13. 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.”]
14. 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)]
15. 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)]
Another true story, one that explores the murky area of whistleblowing and whistleblowers as well as the conflict between the business of journalism and the profession of journalism.
Ethical issues highlighted: confidentiality, whistleblowing, law vs. ethics, sacrifice, courage, media ethics, integrity, honesty, trustworthiness, betrayal
Favorite quote: “You’re in a state of conflict. Here’s how it lays out. If you have vital insider stuff that the American people for their welfare need to know and you feel compelled to disclose it and this violates the agreement – that’s one thing. On the other hand, if you want to honor the agreement, it’s simple. Say nothing. Do nothing. The only guy who can figure this out is you, and that’s you all by yourself.” Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino)
This science fiction film was almost universally panned and misunderstood, in part because its director, Michael Bay, is presumed to be a coarse and trivial film maker. Yet this was a thought-provoking rarity, a Hollywood product that asked tough questions about abortion, if you were not confused, as most critics were, by the use of clones as stand-ins for the unborn.
Ethical issues highlighted: Lots, including,
- Does the life of the mother necessarily take priority over the life of her unborn child? In one upsetting sequence in the film, one of the clones gives birth and is then killed so the female client she was made from can have her baby…a neatly provocative switch in which the mother and the unborn “child’ are one and the same .
- Does the creator of a life have the inherent right to take the life of its unborn offspring? Does it make a difference if the offspring is unambiguously human and alive?
- Do embryos have “souls?”
- Is it ethical to destroy a gestating human being because it is defective or inconvenient? The “defect” in some of the clones that prompts their destruction is unprogrammed curiosity, which makes them inconvenient (difficult to control) to the “parent”, the cloning corporation.
- When does a child become “human”…only when it is born, or when it has certain human characteristics?
- Is it ethical for embryos to be treated as the inhuman property of their mothers, like slaves? Or is the slavery analogy, which the film suggests, unfair?
- Finally, the question that is presented in the film over and over again: does every living thing have a right to survive despite the needs of others or their superior power?
Favorite quote: “When my father was killed, my brothers and I were branded, so everyone would know we were less than human. I’ve said and done things I’m not proud of, but sooner or later you realize, killing’s a business. So… when did killing become a business for you?” Albert Laurent ( Djimon Housou)
18. Quiz Show (1994)
“Quiz Show” is the true story about the quiz show scandals that rocked television in its infancy. Congressional hearings revealed that popular prime time programs like “21”were fixed, and that a young Columbia professor and scholar was one of the champions who had been supplied with the answers in advance. This is an intense and intelligent study in the power of rationalizations.
Ethical issues highlighted: Rationalizations, greed, advertising, lies, utilitarianism, revenge, apologies, corruption, bias
Favorite quote: “…At first they’d ask me questions they already knew I knew the answers to. We ran through those, and I really didn’t want them to give me the answers, so they gave me the questions and I’d look up the answers on my own, as if that were any different. Well, we ran through those in a couple of weeks and I just didn’t have the time, finally, and it just seemed silly, so…” Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes)
Like “Quiz Show” a Robert Redford-directed historical drama, “The Conspirator” tells the inspiring story of Frederick Aitkin, who took the hopeless job of defending Mary Surratt in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy trial. (Surratt, who ran the boarding house where the plot to kill the 16th President was hatched, became the first woman to be executed in the United States.) Few films make a clearer argument for lawyers representing unpopular clients and causes. The movie also shows the ethical dilemmas facing government when a crisis shakes the public’s faith in its own security, like 9/11 or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Ethical issues highlighted: legal ethics, zealous representation, loyalty, courage, due process of law, wartime ethics, government ethics, the Constitution.
Favorite quote: “Our founding fathers drafted a constitution, precisely for times like this.” Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkerson)
20. Cinderella Man (2005)
“Cinderella Man” offers a hero who seems too good to be true but who was apparently just about as ethical in real life as he is shown to be in the film. He is James Braddock, a nearly forgotten heavyweight boxing champion in the 1930s (he was ultimately dethroned by the immortal Joe Louis). Braddock confronts every challenge in his difficult and improbable life with a natural instinct for choosing right over wrong. It is hymn to an ethical life spent in part in a brutal and unethical sport, and the rare breed of champion whose personal values and character not only matched his degree of success, but were responsible for it.
Ethical issues highlighted: determination, responsibility, courage, sacrifice, honesty, diligence, respect
Favorite quote: “You think you’re telling me something? Like, what, boxing is dangerous, something like that? You don’t think working triple shifts and at night on a scaffold isn’t just as likely to get a man killed? What about all those guys who died last week living in cardboard shacks to save on rent money just to feed their family, ’cause guys like you have not quite figured out a way yet to make money off of watching that guy die? But in my profession – and it is my profession – I’m a little more fortunate.” Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe)
A group of seven hired gunslingers help an impoverished Mexican town fight off looting bandits, each of the seven for a different reason, facing their own ethical dilemmas and contradictions.
Ethical issues highlighted: altruism, bullying, charity, courage, integrity, teamwork and the importance of prioritizing values.
Harry (Brad Dexter): “There comes a time to turn mother’s picture to the wall and get out. The village will be no worse off than it was before we came.”
Chris (Yul Brenner): “You forget one thing — we took a contract.”
Vin (Steve McQueen): “It’s not the kind any court would enforce.”
Chris: “That’s just the kind you’ve got to keep.”
22. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
Gregory Peck’s small town lawyer is the model for everyone who feels that they are right and everyone else is wrong, but who needs to learn to treat the rest of the world with fairness and tolerance anyway, and to keep fighting the good fight for the right values.
Ethical issues highlighted: community ethics and culture, racism, bias, honesty, integrity, kindness
Favorite quote: ” If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck]
23. High Noon (1952)
“High Noon” is a Western that shows the American people at their worst, refusing to help a single law man threatened on his wedding day, and cringing in fear and denial when their values need to be fought for. In the center of the storm is an ordinary man determined to do his duty, even as those he will be risking his life for seem increasingly unworthy of his dedication.
Ethical issues highlighted: Courage, rationalizations, betrayal, ethical conflict, faith vs. action, duty, the rule of law.
Favorite quote: ” The commandments say ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but we hire men to go out and do it for us. The right and the wrong seem pretty clear here. But if you’re asking me to tell my people to go out and kill and maybe get themselves killed, I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry. ” Dr. Mahin, the minister, when Sheriff Will Cain (Gary Cooper) comes to the church to beg for help against the four killers coming to town.
24. The Godfather (Part 2) (1974)
A movie that is about how unethical conduct takes over lives and cultures, the sequel to “The Godfather” traces how the Mafia began as a system of protection and security from neighborhood thugs and bullies, and then metastasized, though greed, self-delusion and lust of power, into something more vicious and evil than what it was created to combat.
Ethical issues highlighted: trust, betrayal, revenge, corruption, “the ends justify the means,” rationalizations, the slippery slope, ethical culture, abuse of power, hypocrisy
Favorite quote: ” I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom. Just my enemies ” Michael Corleone (Al Pacino)
25. Breaker Morant (1980)
Based on a true story, “Breaker Morant” addresses the ethical dilemma of the ordinary soldier in battle, and compels the audience to see itself from the point of view of the doomed defendants.
Ethical issues highlighted: war, war crimes, codes of conduct, fairness, justice, self-defense, duty, submitting to authority, morality, judgment, mercy, hypocrisy
Favorite quote: “The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations, situations in which the ebb and flow of everyday life have departed and have been replaced by a constant round of fear and anger, blood and death. Soldiers at war are not to be judged by civilian rules, as the prosecution is attempting to do, even though they commit acts which, calmly viewed afterwards could only be seen as unchristian and brutal. And if, in every war, particularly guerrilla war, all the men who committed reprisals were to be charged and tried as murderers, courts martial like this one would be in permanent session, would they not?” Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson)