Two Ethics Movies For The Holidays

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.

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