More Ethics Movies For The Holidays: “Woman In Gold”


The movie critics site “Rotten Tomatoes”calls “Woman in Gold” dull, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about “Rotten Tomatoes.” No, there are no explosions, no sex scenes, no CGI, just a well-acted, powerful story of how justice can take a long time to prevail, but given enough dedication, integrity and luck, it still does prevail with sufficient frequency to stave off despair.

“Woman in Gold” is a 2015 film starring Ryan Reynolds and Helen Mirren. It is a virtual docudrama telling the true story (mostly accurately) of Maria Altmann (Mirren), a plucky Jewish refugee in Los Angeles, who, assisted by her young lawyer, Randy Schoenberg, battled the government of Austria  to obtain the return of Gustav Klimt’s renowned portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. That painting, along with more by Klimt and  other painters as well, were among the art treasures stolen by the Nazis  prior to World War II. The legal battle ended up before the Supreme Court of the United States, and the conflict was finally settled by a shocking decision by an Austrian panel of mediators. You can read about the real case here.

It may be dull to dull minds, as Red Smith famously said about baseball, but I have seen the film twice now, and it moved me to tears both times. “Woman in Gold” shows once more, as I fervently believe, that right can and often does triumph over bureaucracies, greed, power and stupidity, and that lawyers, maligned as they are, are often essential to that process. Schoenberg shows us the epitome of a zealous and courageous lawyer, making personal and professional sacrifices for a cause he comes to believe is important both to his client and to humanity.

The movie also stands for film’s vital function in preserving and educating new generations about historical events that otherwise would be forgotten. Our rising generations, thanks to the rotting of the U.S. education system, are dangerously ignorant of history and culture. Well, if their teachers won’t and can’t enlighten them, movies like this one can help. How many millennial know about the Nazi art thefts, or the post-war battle by Jewish families to recover the wealth and artifacts stolen from them? How many of their teachers know about it?

Ethical issues highlighted: Justice, legal ethics, fairness, law vs. ethics, non-ethical considerations, courage, sacrifice, ethical dilemmas, corruption, loyalty, nationalism, integrity, rationalizations, exploitation, trust, gratitude.

Favorite quote: “We recommend opening the can and exacting the little worm with a pair of tweezers and shutting the can as quickly as possible.” Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to the Austrian mediators.

That’s as good an explanation of the Ethics Incompleteness Principle as I have ever heard!


7 thoughts on “More Ethics Movies For The Holidays: “Woman In Gold”

  1. I had the same experience you had with this movie. The first time was in the theater and I watched it again just yesterday and was moved to tears both times. For one thing, Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds were perfectly cast. Thanks for writing this post about a movie totally suited for the holidays.

  2. I’ve DVR’d it. Now I’ll watch it soon. But I have another ethics flick that I use in my classes: Bridge of Spies.

    Here’s the exchange between James Donovan, who’s just been strong-armed to defend Soviet spy Rudolph Abel, and FBI agent Hoffamn, who wants Donovan to tell him what Abel has told his lawyer:
    Hoffman: Has your guy talked?
    James Donovan: Excuse me?
    Hoffman: You met him. Has he talked? Has he said anything yet?
    James Donovan: We’re not having this conversation.
    Hoffman: Of course not.
    James Donovan: No, I mean we are really not having it. You’re asking me to violate attorney-client privilege.
    Hoffman: Aw, come on, counselor.
    James Donovan: You know, I wish people like you would quit saying, ‘Aw, come on, counselor’. I didn’t like it the first time it happened today. A judge said it to me twice. The more I hear it, the more I don’t like it.
    Hoffman: OK, well, listen, I understand attorney-client privilege. I understand all the legal gamesmanship, and I understand that’s how you make your living, but I’m talking to you about something else, the security of your country. I’m sorry if the way I put it offends you, but we need to know what Abel is telling you. You understand me, Donovan? Don’t go Boy Scout on me. We don’t have a rule book here.
    James Donovan: You’re Agent Hoffman, yeah?
    Hoffman: Yeah.
    James Donovan: German extraction.
    Hoffman: Yeah, so?
    James Donovan: My name’s Donovan. Irish, both sides. Mother and father. I’m Irish and you’re German. But what makes us both Americans? Just one thing. One. Only one. The rule book. We call it the Constitution, and we agree to the rules, and that’s what makes us Americans. That’s all that makes us Americans. So don’t tell me there’s no rule book, and don’t nod at me like that you son of a bitch.
    [Gets up to leave]
    Hoffman: Do we need to worry about you?
    James Donovan: Not if I’m left alone to do my job.

    • It will be on the new list for sure. Did you see the post about the legal ethics issues in the film, Bob? I not only used the film in my legal ethics course, but also wrote a parody about it for my latest musical ethics CLE course. It’s to the melody of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana”, and goes like this:

      His name was Abel, he was caught spying
      Arrested by the FBI, Abel was one endangered guy
      To represent him, his zealous lawyer
      Saved him with “Abel is a chip, his execution we should skip”
      When the U2 came down, the CIA came ‘round
      “Hey, trade Abel for Gary Powers
      And be East Berlin-bound!


      Who’s the client? The lawyer’s client?
      Is the lawyer One-Point-Nine compliant?
      Is he adverse to
      His former client?
      Negotiations with communist nations
      But no client?

      (He took the case….)

      His name was Pryor, a US student
      Locked up in an East German jail, the lawyer said the deal would fail
      Unless its Abel, for Pow’rs and Pryor
      The spooks said Powers is enough!
      But the Reds took the lawyer’s bluff
      So we would get the pair; Send Abel over there
      But were the Russians going to shoot Abel

      (And) should the lawyer care?


      Who’s the client? This conflict’s giant!
      Is this lawyer (beat) a rogue defiant?
      Does the CIA speak for his client?
      Client objectives, not lawyer electives

      (Head for the bridge…).

      His name was Powers, and they could see him
      Across the bridge he stood right there, but student Pryor was nowhere
      The CIA said,
      Send Abel over
      The lawyer said, “I’m no schlemiel; They must show Pryor or no deal”
      And Abel said he’d wait, they brought the student: Great!
      So the U.S. recovered Powers
      It was worth the wait!

      Who’s the client? Was there a client?
      Was Abel still on him reliant?
      Was the USA paying for this spy-hunt?
      How could the lawyer defy his employer
      And his client?….

      ( I love Tom Hanks…….)

      • Ah, if only I could hear the song. Gilbert-worthy, no doubt. I missed the earlier post. I admit, I didn’t know it was so complicated. I hope I can stay one step ahead of my students.

  3. I recently met one of the lawyers involved in this case at a conference — he told me all about it over a meal. Truly fascinating and apparently there are many works of art all over the world that can be traced back to thefts during the Holocaust.

  4. Agreed. Spectacular movie. I watched the movie simply out of curiosity one evening when two Mirren movies were played back-to-back: “The One Hundred Foot Journey” and “Woman in Gold”. I recommend both of them. Terrific films.

    Mirren is terrific (but that is repeating myself). Reynolds was particularly interesting. He gave real life to his character, especially when he realized that there was more at stake than a contingency fee. It was crucial to the story, as was seeing his grandfather’s name on the sculpture in Vienna, where it became all too real to him.


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