Topic: Professions & Institutions
Ethics Film Review: “21”
The Oscars won’t have a category for “Most Unethical Film of 2008,” but
if they did, “21” would be an early favorite. “21” tells the sort-of-true
story (based on the best seller “Bringing Down the House”) of a brilliant
MIT student who joins a professor’s extra-curricular project to win millions
at Las Vegas blackjack tables using a team of confederates and a card-counting
system. Naturally, the naïve student only wants to win enough money to
pay his way to Harvard Medical School. Naturally, he loses his goals and
principles as the money pours in. Naturally, the casino enforcers are
portrayed as brutal thugs. Naturally, he gets the girl, and rights his
moral compass. Or so the film would have us believe.
But on the way to this happy result, the screenwriters and director manage to churn out enough bad ethics lessons to qualify the film as more dangerous to young viewers than “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Debbie Does Dallas” combined. They begin by emphasizing that card-counting is legal, as if that’s all that matters. But card-counting is against the house rules of every Vegas casino, and therefore, a form of cheating. And using teams of disguised students talking in code and using false IDs to turn a single player game into a surreptitious team exercise where the player gets help in his card counting is really cheating. What is it called when you use deception to get money? Fraud. Theft. What does “21” call it?
Cool. This is the movie’s Warped Ethics Lesson #1.
To watch “21,” you’d never know there was anything wrong with their plan, except that it was risky . The casino personnel are brutal and sleazy, so the thieves become, by default, the good guys. And our hero, the brilliant aspiring doctor, is participating in the scam for a good purpose: going to medical school, so he can cure the sick and infirm. Warped Ethics Lesson #2: The film adopts the philosophy that fraud and theft is ethical as long as the people you steal from are low-lifes and you have an admirable use for the money, even if the primary beneficiary is yourself.
Somehow, I don’t think Robin Hood would be considered a hero if he robbed from the rich to put himself through medical school.
As is always the case in this genre (it is called the “poor but good-hearted young person accepts a lucrative/glamorous job from a mean-spirited creep and loses his/her values, betraying and lying to family and friends, until finally redeeming him/herself” genre, and includes “The Nanny Diaries,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” and about ten Tom Cruise movies), our young hero has an ego attack when he becomes drunk with success, and manages to blow hundreds of thousands of dollars playing black-jack without his team’s help or approval. But again, the movie gives out an ethically-backwards message. When Kevin Spacey, as the manipulative MIT professor, tells him that he blew the team’s winnings, against the rules of the enterprise, our hero responds, “I’ve made you so much more money than I lost tonight!”…and Spacey is portrayed as a cold bastard because he doesn’t accept the logic. Warped Ethics Lesson #3. The Spacey character is a cold bastard, but legally and ethically he’s 100% correct on this point. If a partner or an employee steals money from a company (and using money without authorization, as the student did, is stealing), how much money his work has made for the company in the past is irrelevant. To all you embezzlers out there: don’t count on this argument working with your boss, your partners or the judge. It’s a loser, and deserves to be.
Finally, the movie endorses violent revenge. Spacey uses his wiles to take the hero’s money and wrecks his grade-point average, so Brilliant Student tricks him into a trap that puts him helpless in a chair opposite a casino goon who has vowed to beat him to a pulp for past transgressions. That’s the happy ending! Warped Ethics Lesson #4: Violent revenge is not a bad thing, as long as you’re not the one holding the lead pipe, you don’t get blood on your hands, and the guy being beaten really, really deserves it. Who wrote this thing, Dick Cheney?
Finally, the movie ends with the student, who is vying for a scholarship that will pay his medical school tuition, telling the whole sordid story to his interviewer for the prize, in the belief that the tale shows him to be “special.” It’s hard to figure out what the film-makers want us to think here. Is he trying to lose the scholarship? Or does “21” really want us to believe that his journey shows character, rather than such an extreme deficit of ethics that any reputable medical school would be about as likely to admit Jack the Ripper?
In either case, it’s a fitting ending for a movie that begins as a race to see whether logic or ethics will be most abused, and ends in a dead heat.