Changing Lanes
House Church Central Goes to the Movies

Paramount Pictures. Produced by Scott Rudin and Roger Michell. Written and Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin, Directed by Roger Michell.

This is billed as a "suspense thriller," but it is really one of the most remarkable cinematic studies of ethics to appear on the screen in years.

The stories of the two main characters are presented in parallel, with frequent segues back and forth. The characters meet for the first time as a result of an auto accident and, as the story unfolds, we see the enmity between the characters build to an almost unbearable degree. Yet we can't help but be sympathetic to the plight of each character, and we wish that the war between them could somehow end.

Samuel L. Jackson plays, as only he can, a desperate man trying to emerge from alcoholism in order to keep his family from breaking up by purchasing a home. Ben Affleck is a lawyer just becoming aware of the sleaziness of his employers and well on the way to becoming just like them. We quickly realize that the real story is not the enmity between the two main characters, but the fact that the struggle between them has forced Affleck's character to accelerate down the path of his employers and would-be future partners. When he finally reaches the fork in the road where he must make a choice, we reach the ethical centerpiece of the film.

Challenging his boss, played by Sydney Pollack, Affleck's character demands an explanation. Pollack's answer: he can sleep at night because, at the end of the day, he figures that he does more good than harm. That, of course, is one of the defining statements of philosophical ethics -- the ethics taught at a high school or liberal arts college. It is closely tied to other philosophical ethics concepts such as "the greater good for the greatest number of people." In effect, the movie tells us that it is okay to live the sleazy life, stealing from our clients, lying, etc., so long as we compensate by doing enough "good."

But Pollack's speech does not end there. He adds, "and that's the only basis [of ethics] there is." And it is at this point that we see that Pollack's character's biggest flaw is that he dismisses out of hand the possibility that there may actually be a higher set of ethics to which humans are called.

The movie concludes with Affleck's character making his ethical choice -- he rejects the ethics of his boss, and becomes one who goes out of his way to do good works. The movie becomes redemptive at this point, with Affleck's character helping Jackson's character to buy his house and reconcile with his family. A smarmy ending, perhaps. Is the movie telling us that philosophical ethics are okay if one does enough "good?" Perhaps this is Hollywood's epic on its own ethics -- our hero, in the person of Ben Affleck, brings down "the man" (Sydney Pollack) and strikes out to replace him with a person of compassion. But doesn't Affleck's character simply become the new "man?" Is it even possible to define the difference except by degrees? After all, no new absolutes are introduced to keep the new man from lapsing into the old.

Biblical ethics are, of course, never mentioned in the movie. A brief interaction with a Catholic priest is a close as the movie comes, and that seems only to show the church as completely incapable of dealing with the corruption in the world (no doubt an accurate perception from Hollywood's point of view). But that scene at least plants the question in the mind of the viewer. Surely this movie can help us see the bankruptcy of philosophical ethics altogether! And does this emerging doer of good works pass the test of Ephesians 2:8-9? It is a great study for Christians.

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