making local government more ethical

Top Ten Ethics Films

We have been batting this around for a while, and have come up with the following list:

The Top Ten BEST ETHICS Movies of all time

1. Man for All Seasons

Paul Scofield brilliantly plays Thomas More who stands up for his principals against the ultimate difficult boss, King Henry VIIII. In the end, he dies for his faith and his principals, but he gets to become the patron saint of lawyers.

2. Gandhi

Gentle courage in the face of extreme resistance to doing the right thing.

3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Old Fashioned Common Sense and Goodness. Jimmy Stewart would have made a great actor turned president.

4. Serpico

Serpico, a NY police officer, exposes corruption in the police force at great personal cost.

5. All the King's Men

A study in the corruptive effect of power.

6. All the President's Men

A testament to the power of information and the 4th Estate.

7. 1984

The Richard Harris/John Hurt version. A bleak picture of society in which information is manufactured and controlled by the government to the end of maintaining power and privilege at the cost of annihilating human relationships.

8. Thank You For Smoking

Hilarious examination of the influence of money in government.

9. Bulworth

Wouldn't it be great if politicians really talked like that?

10. The Ideal Husband

Set in 1895 London and based on a play by Oscar Wilde. Sir Robert Chiltern is an honorable Government minister happily married to his wife (played by Cate Blanchett) who idolizes him. Enter the conniving Mrs. Chieveley (Julianne Moore), who threatens to expose Sir Chiltern's youthful misstep to motivate him to award a government contract from which she will derive much money. Very entertaining.

Honorable Mentions

Here are some additional "Honorable Mentions" that MAY be worthy of a place in the list. Please feel free to make a comment if you feel strongly about any of these, or wish to add to the list !

  • Brazil (1985)
  • Becket (1964)
  • Catch 22 (1970)
  • The Ideal Husband
  • Hands Over the City
  • Sophie Scholl - the Last Days (Die letzten Tage) (2005)
    The Sophie Scholl movie is in German (subtitles available, of course), but if you haven't seen it you should.

Rajiv (not verified) says:

Hotel rwanda can be considered a ethical shows the weakness of ethical value in decision making...the main character is reserving his power to save his neighbour who is in trouble ,just to make their family safe in future....

Robert Wechsler says:

The 1950 George Cukor film Born Yesterday, starring Judy Holliday, William Holden, and Broderick Crawford, may not be remembered most as a government ethics film. But from beginning to end the film is about a scrap metal tycoon (the Second World War made the fortunes of a lot of them) who goes to Washington to get a law that would help him become even richer and more powerful. He has a well-connected lawyer-lobbyist and a Congressman in his pocket. But, this being Hollywood, he is surrounded by people with good values who are unable to act on them due to money, intimidation, family loyalty, alcoholism that comes from having sold out and, of course, mink coats and the chance to make it.

Into this horrible ethics environment walks an idealistic journalist who is asked to make the tycoon's girl less embarrassing to be around in the Capital. Insert regime values, good looks, and a tactic or two into such an environment, and the result is that, eventually, the girlfriend and the lawyer-lobbyist start acting on their values. When people act on their values, those without values are finished.

Besides the cardboard nature of the bad guys, what bothered me about this film was an exchange at the very end, when the tycoon says the usual "Everyone does it," and the lawyer-lobbyist explains that our nation's representatives are good, honest people, except for the occasional bad apple (which we're supposed to accept as true). These two statements are common as can be, but they're equally false, and the movie even proves it.

Everyone doesn't do it, if doing it is bribing elected officials. But that isn't what "doing it" is. "Doing it" includes standing there watching it be done or, as the girlfriend (and the cousin) did, going along with it because it suits them fine. "Doing it" includes all the ways in which people cooperate with the bribed congressman, because it doesn't matter to them one way or the other. Other representatives, their personal aides, committee aides, etc.

Them's a lot of bad apples, as the Judy Holliday character would have said, with a cute, uncertain smile. Because at least she wouldn't be sure whether so many people could be characterized as "bad apples." When someone says with authority it's all about "bad apples" (and they do, again and again), then ethics programs are only about enforcement against bad apples, not about training or advice, not about institutional corruption or ethics environments.

And since none of us, to ourselves, is a "bad apple," government ethics is always about somebody else. Whoosh, no responsibility for it.

Visitor (not verified) says:

Perhaps the most important film that comes to my mind in terms of ethics is the original Lost Horizon. The residents of Shangri La have no laws and no police. They live by one simple rule: "Be Kind". Some of the details behind that rule are apparent and well thought-out.

Another film that comes to my mind is The Fountainhead. It stresses the importance of individuality over "the collective", the importance of truth over falsehood, the value of voluntary consent over coercion, the value of freedom over slavery, and the importance of living up to our agreements and promises.

John C (not verified) says:

I would like to add my 2 bits. I think a recent very human and ethical film is a German film called, THE LIVES OF OTHERS. It is about the state of surveilance that developed in East Berlin by the special police (the Stasi) before the fall of the Wall. The plot turns around a writer who is 'bugged' by the authorities because the chief is jealous and lusts after his girlfriend. Well, it more complicated than that. It is a great film!

Robert Wechsler says:

Check out a 1970 film called I Walk the Line, starring Gregory Peck and Tuesday Weld, directed by John Frankenheimer. Peck plays a straight-shooting southern sheriff who falls for the young daughter of a still owner.

Offering the recreational services of Tuesday Weld is one of the more interesting gifts offered to a local government official. Needless to say, favoritism is shown. The plot depends on the sheriff falling in love with Weld in a way few people do with basketball tickets or even a new kitchen.

Rahul (not verified) says:


i recently have become way too involved in good or bad because of too much mental and social suffering i started to encounter after i was recently diagnosed with AD/HD. Even though i think have no room to talk about ethics, being a nineteen year old, but the one film that really made all the difference to me was THE DARK KNIGHT. Since i believe all source of knowledge springs from within, i will not give an explanation, unless someone really asks for it, because i want all the readers to come to it from within themselves. I just wanted to point it out for people :). It perplexes me most, because of its representation of individual divinity.


Esmov (not verified) says:

I'd add "12 Angry Men" to that list somewhere.

Robert Wechsler says:

Movies about Ethical Dilemmas
By Peggy Kerns

Want another top 10 movie list? Try this one: The Top Ten Best Ethics Films by Carla Miller and Don McClintock at Their favorites include familiar ones like A Man for All Seasons, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (this movie makes every list), 1984, Bulworth and one I hadn't heard of—The Ideal Husband.

To this top 10 list, I'm going to add two of my favorites. But first, what makes a movie an "ethics movie?"

Simply put, ethics is about doing the right thing. Doing the right thing can be based on laws or values. At NCSL's Center for Ethics in Government, we discuss both types. We track, research and publish information on the Web about ethics laws in all 50 states. In our training sessions, we present ethics as values—how people behave and the ethical conflicts they have, based on moral duties and values.

Dilemmas in these two categories play out differently. Public officials usually are not conflicted about law-based ethics, called right-versus-wrong dilemmas. They obey their state's ethics laws and, therefore, act in a legal way. Dilemmas based on values may be tougher to solve. Ethical dilemmas occur when the choice is between two ethical values, called right-versus-right dilemmas. Both choices may be ethically "right," but the person can pick only one way.

Movies that deal with the conflicts between competing ethical values are ethics films, and they are rich sources for training programs.

I like two movies that are not on the list: Brubaker (1980) and The Insider (1999). Both contain strong right-versus-right ethical dilemmas based on true stories.

Brubaker is a raw film starring a young Robert Redford. Brubaker is a fictional character based on the experiences of Arkansas prison warden Thomas O. Murton who is hired by then-Governor Winthrop Rockefeller to reform the state correctional system. He embarks on a crusade that uncovers awful conditions, corruption, extortion, and horrific prison torture.

Brubaker is pulled in two directions by conflicting values. He uncovers burial plots for hundreds of bodies in a field near the prison, most buried years earlier. This embarrasses the governor. On the one hand, he wants to reveal the truth about what he is discovering. On the other hand, by doing so, he jeopardizes his job, his career and puts prisoners in danger. He is asked to stop digging up bodies and concentrate on penal reforms. He makes a decision.
    Lillian (head of parole board): "You don't see any options - no middle ground." Brubaker: "I don't see playing politics with the truth." Lillian: "No way to compromise?" Brubaker: "On strategy maybe, not on principle."
At one point, Lillian admonishes Brubaker, "If you're not in the system, you can't change it." Brubaker responds: "Everyone has his own version (of right and wrong)." Brubaker (Murton) chose not to be in the system. He is fired, loses the battle, the war and his job, and his prison reforms stop. Murton died in 1990, never hired again by any correctional system.

In our training programs, the movie generates a lively discussion on how his values clashed. He chose principles of truth and transparency over the good he was doing for the prisoners. Could this be unethical? Was Lillian acting ethically when she asked Brubaker to compromise his principles? Who else had moral dilemmas? What would you do in a similar situation?

Another movie that contains an emotional right-versus-right dilemma is The Insider, starring Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand, and Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman, producer for the CBS show, 60 Minutes.

The Insider contains so many ethical dilemmas, it's impossible to discuss them all. Wigand is a scientist who works for Brown & Williamson (B&W) tobacco company. He's fired when he refuses to hide information that proves the harmful effects of cigarettes. As a condition of his termination, and so he can keep health insurance for a seriously ill child, he signs a confidentiality agreement. Producer Bergman gets wind of the story.
    Bergman: "You came from the health research industry, where research and creative thinking are core values. Why are you now working for tobacco?" Wigand: "Mostly, I got paid a lot. I took the money. What's wrong with that? Bergman: "Nothing's wrong with that. You've provided for your family. What can be wrong with that?" Wigand: Well, I always thought of myself as a scientist. That's what's wrong with that.
Bergman convinces him to tell his story on 60 Minutes, which delays airing the story because of a potential lawsuit from B&W. Along the way, Wigand loses the support of his wife, and Bergman loses faith in CBS.

Toward the end, Bergman beautifully describes another right-versus-right dilemma when he says to Wigand:
    "You're in a state of conflict. Here's how it lays out. If you have vital insider stuff that the American people for their welfare need to know and you feel compelled to disclose it and this violates the agreement - that's one thing. On the other hand, if you want to honor the agreement, it's simple. Say nothing. Do nothing. The only guy who can figure this out is you, and that's you all by yourself."
Wigand's story is sobering. He got into legal trouble because of violating the confidentiality agreement, his wife divorced him and B&W set out to ruin his reputation. After he couldn't get hired in the corporate world, he became a high school science teacher. Today he lectures and runs his non-profit, Smoke-Free Kids. "People were dying. I wasn't a whistleblower," he said. "I was loyal to a higher order of ethical responsibility." In another interview, he said, "I had what I would consider some moral compass issues that I was dealing with in terms of what principle do I need.... And I wanted to get the truth out."

Questions we discuss in training include: Should Wigand have left B&W immediately when he learned their cigarettes doubled the usual amount of nicotine? His daughter was sick and he needed the health insurance: Is it ethical to put your family at risk? What would you have done? Did Bergman always act ethically? And what about CBS? Who else had moral dilemmas?

Two men. Two movies. Both portray people with courage who risked their professional and personal lives to be ethical—do the right thing.

Peggy Kerns, former minority leader of the Colorado House of Representatives, is director of NCSL's Center for Ethics in Government.

Robert Wechsler says:

I believe that the Italian film Hands Over the City is the best municipal ethics film of all time, and deserves a place at the top of City Ethics’ list.

Hands Over the City is a dramatic film that is about municipal government ethics, and nothing else. A film whose central fact is a glaring conflict of interest.

Yes, it’s Italian, and it’s forty-five years old, but it does star the great Rod Steiger (dubbed into Italian). It's the Twelve Angry Men of municipal government ethics.

Hands Over the City (Le Mani sulla città) has a similarly narrow focus, and its principal characters similarly fight it out among themselves, with people changing sides as the film goes along. But instead of a jury, it’s about a city council, a big city council with factions, faction leaders, and a developer/council member who has purchased land from the city that he wants to develop, making him zillions of lira. He is a walking conflict of interest. There should be a dozen “Don’t do this” signs posted on his sizeable frame.

The city is Naples, but except for an unusual amount of shouting and use of hands (one of the great scenes involves the rightist faction displaying their "clean hands"), it could be any city in the United States. The issues are the same, the factions only a bit different (there’s a leftist party that despises speculation, and its leader, De Vita, is the film’s moral center (Carlo Fermariello, actually the secretary of the Naples workers’ association, plays De Vita with great passion; you won’t believe that he and most of the other characters are amateurs. By the way, using amateurs was not a way to keep the costs down, but a central tenet of Italian Neo-Realism)).

Rod Steiger is the developer, Edoardo Nottola (Nottola means “bat,” which clearly has something to do with blood-sucking; De Vita, means “of life”; this is not a neutral or subtle film).

Some of the dialogue and speeches are memorable. Here are some of the best lines (from an ethics standpoint).

Nottola’s opening speech to his men (the film has only one woman, wife of the rightist leader, who appears to be very unhappy): “A 5,000% profit ... What can beat that? Business? Industry? Sure, invest in factories: strikes, unions, medical benefits. It’ll give you a heart attack. I’m proposing no strife and no worries. All profit, no risk.” Ah, the wonderful benefits of manipulating government spelled out in capital letters.

A bureaucrat to his fellows when an investigation begins, with a big smile: “I’ve been here forty years and never seen anyone sacked.”

De Vita after the right trots out all the right excuses and explanations to end the investigation into a collapsed building (Nottola’s, of course) that kills two people: “The perfect machine. All by the book.”

Nottola to the rightist leader, who wants him to stop building for a while, until the election is over: “I have to build there.” The leader responds, “Be patient, Nottola. We’ll handle everything. ... Your company takes a slap on the wrist, a few city officials take early retirement, and everything returns to normal.” But will Nottola go along, and withdraw from the council race? Watch the movie and find out.

De Vita to Nottola, who tries to win De Vita over: “It’s your methods I’m against, not your buildings. I want them built in accordance with the law, not your schemes.”

De Vita to the City Council: “The sale of public land to a private citizen with no debate in the City Council is a moral issue. I can’t expect you to grasp such reasoning.”

The centrist leader tells Balsamo, a centrist sympathetic to De Vita, “You don’t destroy the Nottolas of the world that way. You merely pretend they don’t exist.” Balsamo responds, “You speak as if power was everything.” And of course it is. The centrist leader becomes mayor. He responds to Balsamo, “In political life, moral indignation is a worthless commodity.”

This is not a movie full of plot, or even character. That’s not its intent. But it is a fine film, a solid example of Italian Neo-Realism. And it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a more powerful, unHollywood portrayal of the central issues in municipal ethics.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics

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