Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Ethics on DVD

Four recent movies making the rounds on DVD raise interesting ethical issues in addition to providing entertainment value.

“Cinderella Man” is a role model for ethics-themed films, offering a hero who seems too good to be true but who was apparently just about as ethical in real life as he is shown to be in the film. He is James Braddock, a nearly forgotten heavyweight boxing champion in the 1930s (he was ultimately dethroned by the immortal Joe Louis). As played by Russell Crowe, Braddock confronts every challenge in his difficult and improbable life with a natural instinct for choosing right over wrong. He sacrifices personal comfort for his family, avoids making decisions based on non-ethical considerations like vengeance and anger, and with one notable exception, never misrepresents himself. The exception is when he hides the cast on his broken hand so that he can get day work on the docks at a time when his Depression-ravaged family is literally starving. But Braddock still provides hard labor for his paycheck, and the deception results in an unexpected bonus: forced to rely on his uninjured left arm, Braddock strengthens it to the point that it becomes a key weapon in his boxing arsenal when it had previously been a weakness. This episode alone could fuel a lively debate between ethical Absolutists, who maintain that all lies are wrong, and Utilitarians of various stripes, who advocate the balancing of results. The film also is a hymn to that vanishing ethical value, sportsmanship. Max Baer, the champion that underdog Braddock beats for the title, is portrayed as a heartless bully, an offensive boor, a narcissist and a cheater, but he is nonetheless gracious in defeat.

“Must Love Dogs” is a romantic comedy with cautionary elements about the ethical perils of internet dating, raising the issue of whether relationships that begin with lies can ever succeed. There is an upsetting sequence in which a middle-aged woman (played by Stockard Channing) who has been frequenting internet chat rooms disguised as a twenty-something party girl is paid a surprise visit by the man who has fallen in love with her cyber-identity. He is a fifteen year old boy who was pretending to be older. Meanwhile, Diane Lane, as a lonely divorcee, lies and is lied to, and manages to salvage her relationship with Mr. Right (John Cusack) by telling the truth in the nick of time.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” like most Tim Burton films, extols the values of family, and it is aided in this by the original Roald Dahl story. The mysterious chocolate baron Willy Wonka, disturbingly played by Burton’s favorite star, Johnny Depp, has responded to abusive treatment by his father (Christopher Lee, recently the villain in both “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings,” and formerly a prolific Dracula…no ambiguity here) to become a child-loathing disciplinarian who inflicts bizarre punishment on several of the undeniably horrible kids visiting his chocolate factory. The exception is the impossibly poor and impossibly sweet Charlie Bucket, who rejects Wonka’s offer of riches and endless chocolate to stay with his impoverished family. Charlie’s choice of family over material wealth shocks Willy Wonka into caring about human beings again. The film is both broad fantasy and satire. The film requires considerable license in its off-key brand of whimsy; for example, it is alarming that Wonka’s substitute for a family appears to be an imported tribe of Pakistani midgets who happily provide the labor in his chocolate factory in a manner reminiscent of either British imperialism or pre-Civil War American slavery. But even this is grist for ethical examination; Wonka confuses paternalism for parenthood. The film examines the ethics of the family in uncommon ways, and is as provocative as it is unusual.

The real surprise is “The Island,” a futuristic action blockbuster directed by schlockmeister Michael Bay (“Pearl Harbor;” “Armageddon”) that didn’t bust enough blocks and is widely regarded as one of 2005’s big budget bombs. But the “The Island” is a pointed and thoughtful allegory about the ethics of abortion, though almost nobody, including DreamWorks, its studio, seems to have figured this out. This is mysterious, because the abortion analogies in “The Island” are hardly disguised.

An unscrupulous corporation has created clones of rich clients who want spare parts at the ready should a health crisis arise. The clients, however, think that their “agnates” are simply unconscious, inhuman masses of cells (“The clients would never accept it if they knew they were killing living, breathing clones…”). In fact, the clones are warehoused in a huge womb-like underground enclosure where they have been deceived into believing they are survivors of a world plague. They wait to win a lottery that will send them to “the Island,” supposedly the one uninfected above-ground haven on earth. In fact, a ticket to the Island is one way admission to fatal organ-harvesting surgery. When one of the agnates (played by Ewan McGregor) figures this out, he grabs the most recent lottery winner (Scarlet Johansson) and escapes the enclosure, where, once “born,” they are regarded as being as human as anyone else. But the client who had McGregor made from his epithelials takes the position that his survival trumps that of his offspring, while the head of the cloning factory, who is determined to kill both escaped clones, tells McGregor that “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it!”

Most provocative of all is the African hit-man hired by the head cloner, who makes the connection between his tribe’s designation as “less than human” in his native land with the “property, not humanity” status of the agnates, leading him to change sides and ally himself with McGregor and Johansson as they attempt to free the clones. (McGregor’s character is named “Lincoln Six Echo” after the batch of clones he came from, but once he becomes an advocate for treating the agnates as human beings with human rights, he goes by the name of Lincoln.) Meanwhile, the head of the cloning company (after seeking approval from his Supreme Court-like board of directors) decides that thousands of the agnates have to be destroyed because they are “defective.” Then we see the gestating clones being ripped out of their giant artificial amniotic sacs, while the older clones (“They’re not human…they have no souls!” the CEO declares) are tricked into entering a room where they will be gassed.

It all ends happily, as the clones (who are clad entirely in white jump suits, closely resembling Woody Allen’s comic spermatozoa in “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask”) rush out into the real world, now “born” and indistinguishable from other human beings. There is more, but this should suffice to illustrate the ethical quandaries surrounding abortion raised by the film:

  • Does the life of the mother necessarily take priority over the life of her unborn child? In one upsetting sequence in the film, one of the clones gives birth and is then killed so the female client she was made from can have her baby…a neatly provocative switch in which the mother and the unborn “child’ are one and the same .
  • Does the creator have the right to take the life of its unborn offspring? Does it make a difference if the offspring is unambiguously human and alive?
  • Do embryos have “souls?”
  • Is it ethical to destroy a gestating human being because it is defective or inconvenient? The “defect” in some of the clones that prompts their destruction is unprogrammed curiosity, which makes them inconvenient (difficult to control) to the cloning corporation.
  • When does a child become “human”…only when it is born, or when it has certain human characteristics?
  • Is it ethical for embryos to be treated as the inhuman property of their mothers, like slaves? Or is the slavery analogy, which the film suggests, unfair?
  • Finally, the question that is presented in the film over and over again: does every living thing have a right to survive despite the needs of others or their superior power?

Needless to say, this is not your average action picture. Regardless of where one stands on the abortion controversy, “The Island” is an excellent starting point for frank discussions of the difficult ethical issues involved. The film uses powerful imagery and analogy to create a thought-provoking allegory that both left and right complete missed. The question is, how? Were critics so blinded by the human clone plot (the ethics of human cloning are really not very pressing right now) that they couldn’t see the abundant and intentional references to abortion? Did the fact that Michael Bay was the director cause them to turn off their brains, since that is usually the best way to enjoy his films? Or are most reviewers so reflexively pro-abortion that they can’t even recognize the ethical controversies when they see them? One would think that the anti-abortion legions would have flocked to this film, but they missed it too. Maybe they didn’t see it at all…too much violence and too much Scarlet Johansson in too small a jump suit for the conservatives, perhaps. But what’s DreamWorks’ excuse? Hollywood would sell babies to cannibals if it meant turning a profit, but the abortion angle was never mentioned in any of the film’s publicity, even though it might have created the magic that sells tickets: controversy.

“The Island” has its flaws, but ethical emptiness isn’t one of them. One can only conclude that the critics who dismissed the film as nothing but a rehash of “Coma” or “The Matrix” would have thought “Moby Dick” was just a whaling adventure.

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