“A Simple Plan”: An Ethics Movie

I watched the 1998 film “A Simple Plan” again last night, and as usual with movies I see several times, I noticed some details and themes that eluded me in previous viewing. This is an ethics film, and one that would support a seminar, yet virtually none of the reviews of “A Simple Plan” mention ethics at all. That is to be expected, since ethics isn’t on Hollywood’s radar or that of 99% of the participants in the film industry, including reviewers. Checking the archives, I discovered that I mentioned the movie in an ethical context three times, but never seriously examined the film itself.

“A Simple Plan,” based on a novel by the same name, stars Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton as the very different Mitchell bothers in rural Minnesota, Hank (Paxton) and Jacob (Thornton) who, along with Jacob’s friend Lou discover a crashed private plane in a snowy field. Along with the dead pilot, the wreck contains over $4 million in cash.

The simple plan of the title is the three men’s decision to take the money, hold on to it until the plane is discovered, and then divide it up afterwards if nobody is looking for the cash. Hank, the only one of the three with firing neurons, initially wants to report the crash and the cash, obviously the legal, safe and ethical course, but allows his genial but dim-witted brother and his habitually drunk friend convince him to try the “plan.”

This illustrates at least nine vital ethics lessons right up front:

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Are You Really A Hero When You Decide Not To Commit A Crime?

19-Year-Old New Mexico Man Visits Local ATM and Finds Bag with $135K Inside, Returns It


José Nuñez Romaniz drove to a local Wells Fargo bank last weekend  to deposit money at the  ATM …and saw a clear plastic bag filled of $50 and $20 bills that he later learned added up to $135,000.

“I didn’t know what to do. I was, like, dreaming,” Nuñez, a Central New Mexico Community College student, told CNN. “I was just in shock. I was looking at myself and just thinking, ‘What should I do?'”

Really? If one finds obviously lost money belonging to someone else, what’s the mandatory response? Is this  a tough question?

 Nuñez eventually made the responsible decision to call the Albuquerque Police Department, who then sent two officers out to pick up the cash. Well, of course he did. How many movies have there been about previously law-abiding citizens who discover a large amount of money try to keep it? In almost every one, they end up on the run, dead, or in jail.  This was the premise of “It’s a Mad,Mad,Mad,Mad, World.” I think the grimmest one is “A Simple Plan,” where the nice people trying to keep the windfall to “have a better life” trigger the deaths of  five people and destroy their marriage.

“This money could have made an incredible amount of difference in his life if he went down the other path,” a spokesman for the Albuquerque police said. ” But he chose … the integrity path and did the right thing.” Right. Tell  Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton about the difference finding a stash in a crashed private plane made in their lives.  Nuñez chose the “integrity path: because he’s not an idiot and doesn’t have a death wish.

The Albuquerque police even presented him with a plaque.

“Meet Jose, this week his selfless actions lead him to contact police and help return $135,000 in cash that he found near an ATM. He is pursuing a degree in criminal justice,” the department wrote on Facebook. “Chief Geier and Mayor Tim Keller invited Jose to the Police Academy where he was recognized and honored for exhibiting the pillars of APD: Integrity, Fairness, Pride and Respect.” Nuñez was also offered season tickets for the University of New Mexico football team by local sports radio station 101.7 FM, and at least three businesses in the area gave him $500 each for his good deed.

Well, the guy seems nice and sincere, and I suppose nothing is wrong about him receiving some gifts and publicity for doing what any citizen should be expected to do, when he really had no other reasonable option. Nevertheless, representing  obeying the law and not stealing someone else’s money as an act of heroism sends very warped message.

Pointer: Michael