Tuesday, February 19, 2008

And the Oscar for best business ethics movie goes to....

Those of you that have noticed the "Ethics on Screen" feature in our business ethics book, or that have come across the film series, Doing the Business that we were involved in starting up at Nottingham, will be well aware of our interests in exploring corporate responsibility issues at the movies. With the awards season in full swing, and Oscar night less than a week away, we thought we would reflect on a few of the films that have been released in the last year that have addressed business ethics issues in one way or another. Here, for starters, are four of our favourites...

There Will Be Blood
First up, and top of many people's list come Oscar time, is this quirky epic about the early days of the oil industry in the US. Tracing the fortunes of the oil man Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), the film provides a fascinating account of the emergent social compact wrangled out between industry and the local community. Day-Lewis plays a hard-grafting, hard bargaining, and ultimately hard headed prospector who pushes the ethical line in his somewhat underhand negotiations for drilling rights. But in an early manifestation of what some might recognise now as a shaky form of CSR, albeit of a decidely self-interested variety, Plainview's investment in the community sees one small town start to flourish as a result of its oil reserves, with a new church and other infrastructure coming to the once impoverished community. Most notable here is the battle between capitalism and religion that frames the film, as Plainview fights against the local preacher for power, control, and for the rich rewards from the precious resources that we are still fighting over today. In the end, it has to be said that the film's message, if it has one, about corporate responsibility is rather opaque. But there is lots of fun to be had poring over some of the allegories, especially at a time when companies such as ExxonMobil and Shell are breaking profitability records on both sides of the Atlantic, and when issues of oil, religion, and capitalism continue to dominate the debate about the war in Iraq.

Michael Clayton
Another Oscar nominated feature, this time staring George Clooney as a fixer in a corporate law firm. Here's what Warner Brothers say this one is about - as you can see, it is classic business ethics territory:

"...Michael Clayton is an in-house fixer at one of the largest corporate law firms in New York. A former criminal prosecutor, Clayton takes care of Kenner, Bach, & Ledeen's dirtiest work at the behest of the firm's co-founder, Marty Bach. Though burned out and hardly content with his job as a fixer, his divorce, a failed business venture, and mounting debt have left Clayton inextricably tied to the firm. At U/North, meanwhile, the career of litigator Karen Crowder rests on the multi-million dollar settlement of a class-action suit that Clayton's firm is leading to a seemingly successful conclusion. But when Kenner Bach's brilliant and guilt-ridden attorney Arthur Edens sabotages the U/North case, Clayton faces the biggest challenge of his career and his life...."

Like many films before it, including movies such as The Insider, Boiler Room,and Glengarry Glen Ross, Michael Clayton is all about how our personal ethics intertwine with the harsh realities of corporate ethics, and the choices we sometimes have to make in navigating between them.

Up the Yangtze
When programming the 'Doing the Business' series, we always struggled to find good quality Asian movies that dealt seriously with business ethics issues. With rapid economic transformations in India, China, and elsewhere though, a number of excellent movies have started to come out that chart some of these developments. Up the Yangtze is one of these - a sharly observed documentary about a luxury tour boat on the famous Chinese river that provides us with a unique view of the massive Three Gorges megadam project. The film traces the experiences of one of the workers on the boat and her role in the Chinese 'economic miracle'. Assembling insights from villages flooded by the dam project, the burgeoning tourist trade, and the brash urban elite, the movies provides a kaleidescopic view of a country undergoing enormous social and economic transformation - and the ethical issues and problems that inevitably come in their wake.

It's a Free World
Many of Ken Loach's films have provided a harsh but realistic picture of those at the bottom of the economic pile - the immigrant cleaners (Bread and Roses), railworkers (The Navigators) and others that are invariably the losers in the casino of capitalism. His latest, It's a Free World, explores the underworld of migrant workers in London, and the firms that recruit them. It focuses on Angie, a hardworking and determined recruiter who has suffered some some of the injustices of the flexible labour market herself, and is now to prove a point by starting up on her own. As Loach's film production company, Sixteen Films, puts it:

"... Angie sets up a recruitment agency with her flat-mate Rose, working in a twilight zone between gangmasters, employment agencies and the migrant workers they place. This is a tale set against the reality of the Anglo Saxon miracle of flexible labour, globalisation, double shifts and lots of happy, happy, happy consumers: Us."

It is not, it has to be said, a happy film. But as a gritty, realistic, and clear sighted view of a slice of the labour market that most of us rarely catch much of a glimpse of, it is hard to beat.


  1. I vote for The Apartment as the best business ethics film.

    In 1959, the Apartment, was filmed. It starred Jack Lemon and Shirley MacLaine. It was nominated for ten academy awards and won five.

    They filmed some scenes in New York and intended to make much of the film there but Jack Lemon became very ill after at all night shoot in Central Park. So, they filmed most of it on the lot in Hollywood.

    It’s beautifully filmed (I like black and white) and there is a great deal of subtlety in the details of the background that add to the message of the film

    Why do I use it in class? First, it’s a view of an America that has ceased to be. An America whose history has tremendous resonance for our own.

    Lessons from the film. (Not in order of importance.)

    1. There is no normal in America. Every year we think this is normal, that everyone should do this. It’s how it is and you can’t change it. Well, it’s changing anyway. The only normal is constant motion in the direction of a new normal. It’s an important lesson because some of my students feel like they can have no effect in this world and thus should retreat to a private world of friends kept at a distance and media individualized to kill time and give a brief, fraudulent feeling of fulfillment.

    2. I want my students to see the changes in how women are treated and how they adapted. Women were relegated to certain jobs and they realized their only avenue to improving their lot in life was to marry well. Many of the women in the film are just temporary forms of entertainment for all intents and purposes.

  2. Part 2
    3. One of the strangest qualities of the film, and the director himself pointed this out, the Jack Lemon character, for the most part, is the architect of his problems and yet we feel sympathy for him and identify with him. And again, the Shirley MacLaine character largely chooses her own fate and we feel sorry for her.

    There’s a big lesson here – we often feel sympathy, often a sense of identification and sometimes, even envy, with the unethical. I tell my students about the time one of my students came to me with this story of woe that virtually demanded sympathy. And I felt that way, until I noticed a sentence in this long story of suffering. So, I stopped him and said, “You did what?” There then followed a not very effective explanation. You see, he was a criminal. He broke the law. He was in the mess because of his own decision making. He did not deserve my sympathy. Yet, I was confident that every student he regaled with his tale of suffering felt bad for him.

    If we are going to practice ethics, we are going to have to be tougher than that. People who do bad things, who treat other people cruelly, who act without honor or scruples, deserve moral condemnation. That will not change because you’re related to them, because they are friends, really attractive or you like their story. Practicing ethics is tough and it means being tough on other people who do wrong.

    If you know what should be done and let it have no effect on your actions, you are acting unethically. You have failed to act ethically.


Have some thoughts you want to share about this post? We would love to hear them, so comment here (all comments will be moderated to prevent spam and random acts of advertising)...