Compliance Depicted in Film

Last week we called out some of the ways that corporate ethics and compliance have been portrayed in television over the years. As promised, this week we have a look at ethics and compliance portrayed in film.

Again, we had two criteria: the films had to be fictional (we will address the many outstanding documentary looks at business misconduct some day, I promise); and the plot had to be about a legal business behaving in a corrupt manner.

Some commentary below comes from Radical Compliance readers who recommended the titles, based on my original LinkedIn post calling for suggestions. That post now has more than 31,000 views and a ton of great comments, so by all means read that thread, too, if you want more.

Without further delay…

The Oldies (Pre-1980)

Accidents Will Happen (1938) A drama starring Ronald Reagan as an insurance adjuster named Eric Gregg. The plot: Gregg loses his job after his wife gets involved with a corrupt loan company he had been investigating. Then Gregg (now divorced) teams up with a cigarette girl to run his own insurance scam, which threatens the head of the loan company who is running around with Gregg’s ex-wife.

The Andromeda Strain (1971) From a Radical Compliance reader: “There are some fundamental risk management tenets illustrated in the way the scientists operate. One scientist says, ‘I’ve planned our work in three stages. One: detection. The first step is to confirm that an organism is present. Two: characterization. How is it structured? How does it work? And three: control. How to contain — and exterminate.’ These steps mirror aspects of the risk management process, such as identifying and analyzing a loss exposure, implementing a risk management technique and controlling the potential loss.”

Zulu Dawn (1979) An action movie set in the 1870s, telling a tale of British soldiers trying to hold off Zulu warriors in southern Africa. The ethics & compliance hook? As one Radical Compliance reader told me:

We showed this movie to new officers while I was an instructor at the Navy. It shows that overly burdensome controls can be catastrophic in certain conditions. The quartermasters of the garrison under attack refuse to hand out ammunition without the requested units submitting all required paperwork. As the units run out of ammunition waiting for resupply, the units are overrun and the battle was one of the largest British Army defeats in Africa. The quartermasters did their job; they were complying with supply regulations. That  provides scant comfort in battle.

The 1980s

Trading Places (1983) Who says stories about business misconduct can’t be funny? Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd star in the tale of a street hustler (Murphy) and a snooty commodities trader (Aykroyd) whose lives are reversed as part of a bet two rich guys make about success, skill, and circumstance. Once they figure out the rich guys’ manipulations, they swindle the rich guys out of a fortune. In a perfect world, someone would do a remake with Donald Trump as one of the rich jerks; he’d be a natural.

You’re damned right I dressed like that in 1987.

Wall Street (1987) Lots of people recommended this one, and love it or hate it, it’s one of the landmark films about business misconduct. Charlie Sheen stars as a lean and hungry stockbroker from the working class, who worms his way into the immoral business empire of Gordon Gekko. Michael Douglas won an Oscar for his portrayal of Gekko. With the passage of time, you almost roll your eyes at the Shakespearean notes of tragedy and hubris — but hey, you gotta love Gekko’s shirts, suspenders, and hair.

The 1990s

Rogue Trader (1999) This is a drama depicting the deeds of Nick Leeson, “the original rogue trader” (seriously, he calls himself that on his website) whose unauthorized and speculative trades caused the collapse of Barings Bank in 1995. Ewan McGregor portrays Leeson.

That was our only film from the 1990s, which seems to me like we’re forgetting something. If you have a recommendation, drop me a line at [email protected] and let me know!

The 2000s

Boiler Room (2000) College dropout from Queens tries to impress his dad, a federal judge, by getting a job as a stockbroker. Turns out the firm is an unprincipled pump-and-dump operation. Dropout ruins people’s lives, disappoints his dad even more, flips for the FBI, works to bring down the firm. Moral of the story: stay in school, it’s way easier to impress your dad.

Syriana (2005) Several people recommended this one, and I’ve always meant to watch it. It’s a geopolitical thriller about two U.S. oil companies trying to merge amid antitrust concerns in Washington, while the merger has political consequences in the Middle East as well ranging from assassination attempts to terrorism to arms dealing. George Clooney and Matt Damon star along with many more notable names in the supporting cast.

Blood Diamond (2006) Another one mentioned by several readers. This film looks at conflict diamonds and how they helped to fund the Sierra Leone civil war in the 1990s, with all the atrocities and bloodshed that followed. Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, and Djimon Hounsou, who are all great actors.

The Informant! (2009) Matt Damon again! He plays a well-meaning but bumbling whistleblower at Archer Daniels Midland, Mark Whitacre, who worked with the FBI to uncover an ADM price-fixing scheme in the 1990s. This is a comedy based on a true story, and I’m not sure how much of Whitacre’s antics in the film mirror his real work on the case. If you’ve ever had a whistleblower like this on your own hands, please tell me your story. We can split the film rights.

The 2010s

Love & Other Drugs (2010) A romantic comedy about a fast-talking pharmaceutical salesman, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the sales rep and Anne Hathaway as his love interest, who had Parkinson’s disease. I’ve never seen it, but compliance professionals in the healthcare fields may enjoy it. Set in the late 1990s and Gyllenhaal works at Pfizer.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) A sequel to the original, set in 2008. Suffice to say it’s one of the most inane films ever made, and I’ve seen Ishtar and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.  

Margin Call (2011) This is a good one. Set within 24 hours at an investment bank at the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, it follows several characters — low-level analyst who discovers the market discrepancy, middle management beginning to panic, corporate titan who tells everyone to sell everything and brace for impact — as the bank and the financial system collapse. Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci.

Capital (2012) This is a French film, which means Americans might not get it, but still worth watching. It follows the newly appointed CEO of a global bank who wants to be a good corporate citizen. Then he has to fight off a hedge fund trying to take over the bank, until he finally sells out and becomes a greedy banker who lays off lots of people. OK, maybe Americans will get that.

The Big Short (2015) Alas, one of several recent films involving regulatory compliance that I haven’t seen. This one, based on Michael Lewis’s 2011 book of the same name, is a comedy-drama set in the late 2000s about a group of investors who bet against the mortgage market. Stars Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale if you’re looking for some male eye candy, although Bale’s character dresses like a schlub.

L’Outsider (2016) Another dramatization of a rogue trader! This time it’s Société Générale, and that nitwit Jerome Kerviel who started in SocGen’s compliance department (ugh), became a trader, and then made a series of unauthorized trades that ultimately cost the bank $7 billion in losses. Haven’t seen it.

Miss Sloane (2016) A political thriller revolving around a high-powered, morally ambiguous lobbyist played by Jessica Chastain, a great actress. The movie “weaves in tidbits of the FCPA,” one Radical Compliance reader tells me. Mostly the plot centers on a political debate about gun control and the ethical rules people are tempted to cross when pressured.

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