I typically use this time of year to catch up on or revisit ethics movies, especially since the ones in the Christmas sub-category are embedded in my brain already. Two ethics movies that I recently watched again are Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” from 2007 and “Seven Days in May” (1964).
“Gone Baby Gone” is the more obvious ethics movie thanks to its famous ending, which sparked thousands high school essay assignments at the time of its release. I can’t write too much about that ending without spoiling the film for you if you’ve never seen it; let me just state that the climactic decision made by the film’s protagonist, played by Ben’s brother Casey, is or should be an ethics no-brainer. It’s depressing to me that so many viewers agreed with the character’s ethically clueless, emotion-driven girlfriend that his solution to an admittedly wrenching ethics conflict made him a monster. There is literally no ethical system that would legitimately support her argument, which can only be backed by using an army of rationalizations. That a large proportion of the public, perhaps a majority, would back her analysis shows how miserably the education system and our culture has failed in teaching basic ethics problem-solving skills.
“Seven Days in May” presents more diverse and complex ethical issues to consider, and also is old enough after almost 60 years that I have no hesitation in revealing the plot: if you have never seen it, you should have.
That movie is also fascinating as a period piece, flashing ideas and images that seem surprisingly familiar in today’s context in rapid juxtaposition with moments that are hard to imagine today. Silent protests in front of the White House? Women picketing in dresses and men in suits and ties? I found a review of the film from The Harvard Crimson in 1964 that featured this:
“[T]he film has a civil rights tinge. The producer has dutifully used Negroes in minor roles wherever he deemed it appropriate. A Negro in the Pentagon running an automatic door receives a good deal of film footage. Negroes sit in the airports. They march in the pro and anti-treaty lines before the White House. Finally, there are Negroes at the President’s press conference as the film closes. These are simply kowtows to the New Republic set; if the producer had real guts he could have cast Sydney Poitier in Kirk Douglas’ role. But then Producer Edward Lewis would have been troubled by the script’s implication that Douglas will some day sleep with Ava Gardner, who plays Lancaster’s former mistress. Miscegenation might have confused the good guys and the bad guys, particularly for southern audiences. Anything that controversial would have detracted from the film’s propaganda force.“
Fascinating, don’t you think? Today, mixed-race couples on TV and movies are de rigeur, even when it makes no historical sense whatsoever. Today, it takes courage to resist the political correctness edicts that “actors of color” be gratuitously shoehorned into stories and casts based on skin-hue and little else. But today the motivation isn’t “civil rights” but rather affirmative action and “racial justice.” I really don’t care that in Netflix’s “Enola Holmes” blacks turn up in highly unlikely roles for Victorian England, I really don’t. OK, it’s a misrepresentation of history, but the film is a fantasy. However, such blatant virtue-signaling and diversity box-checking does take me out of the story for a moment, and that’s just bad direction. (How many black female martial arts tutors were there in Victorian England, I wonder?)
But I digress. “Seven Days in May” was indeed anti-war, nuclear disarmament propaganda in 1964 at the height of the Cold War, but that’s not one of the ethics issues central to the film.
US President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) has signed a very unpopular nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Critics, including charismatic Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Burt Lancaster) believe that the treaty is irresponsible and dangerous, and that the Soviets will use it to mount a sneak nuclear attack on the U.S. (Shades of Obama’s Iran deal!)
Marine Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) is Director of the Joint Chiefs who works directly under Scott, admires him, is loyal to him and shares his boss’s anti-treaty views. But a series of small lies by Scott, odd comments from an anti-treaty Senator and others as well as other bits information alarm him. This includes references to something called “Ecomcon” (“Emergency Communication Control,” he thinks) relating to a secret military base in Texas, plus the fact that all the generals are sending secret messages about a betting pool on “the Preakness.” Jiggs begins to believe that Scott is planning a military coup in a week, on the coming Sunday.
Jiggs brings his concerns directly to the President, whose aides pronounce them paranoid and absurd. But President Lyman decides to act as if the coup is real, even though he too is dubious. He instructs Jiggs to watch Scott carefully and acquire any supporting evidence he can. Among the measures taken by Scott’s friend and aide is to try gather embarrassing information regarding Scott’s private life from his former mistress, Ellie Holbrook (Ava Gardner), who has kept Scott’s letters, to be used only if all other avenues fail. The President’s investigation proves that a coup is indeed imminent, and the film’s climax is a showdown between President Lymon and General Scott at the White House.
Among the ethics issues explored within this plot:
- The importance of avoiding confirmation bias. Jiggs becomes aware of the polt because he stays objective, and doesn’t default to rationalizations that would allow him to dismiss any suspicion of his superior, General Scott.
- The hierarchies of loyalty and duty. Despite his relationship with Scott, he correctly decides that his duty is to raise his concerns to the President directly, even at the risk of career and credibility.
- Resolving ethics conflicts. The President orders him to betray the trust of his superior and friend in the interests of the nation.
- Leadership competence: Lyman uses the important leadership device of acting as if the worst case scenario is true.
- Utilitarian dilemmas, and whether and when “the ends justify the means.” Using Scott’s private letters regarding a personal matter is distasteful to both Jiggs and the President. When it appears that they may be the only way to discredit Scott, Lyman’s staff and aides urge him to use the letters, as distasteful as that might be, as a last ditch, desperation measure. This plot point echoes a similar one in a film from the same era, “The Best Man.” In that Gore Vidal script, the idealistic good guy candidate for a Presidential nomination can defeat his sinister rival for the prize by using evidence of the candidate’s homosexual fling when he was in the army.
- “The man on a horse” and the public’s need for safety and security. In a memorable speech, President Lymon says
“Scott, the Joint Chiefs, even the very emotional, very illogical lunatic fringe: they’re not the enemy. The enemy’s an age – a nuclear age. It happens to have killed man’s faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. And out of this comes a sickness, and out of sickness a frustration, a feeling of impotence, helplessness, weakness. And from this, this desperation, we look for a champion in red, white, and blue. Every now and then a man on a white horse rides by, and we appoint him to be our personal god for the duration. For some men it was a Senator McCarthy, for others it was a General Walker, and now it’s a General Scott.”
And there is the whole matter of coups and trying to get around the Constitution when you don’t like the President. That seems relevant today, somehow, in fact more relevant than it seemed in 1964.
The screenplay was adapted by Rod Serling from the best-selling novel. If you know your “Twilight Zone” episodes, you will recall that Serling was fascinated by ethics dilemma and conflicts. Even after all these years, “Seven Days in May” still has lessons to teach.