FILMS ABOUT GANGING UP
Kenneth Westhues, 2005-2014
In the winter and spring of 1998, while finalizing
the manuscript published later that year as Eliminating
Professors, I compiled a list of films that had deepened my understanding
of social elimination or mobbing, the process of ganging up on somebody and
getting rid of him or her. I included the list of films as an appendix to the
book, and have expanded and updated it for publication here. Thanks to all the
colleagues and students who have suggested additions to the list. Click on the
title to see reviews on rottentomatoes
Many of the films recommended below depict collusion, intentional or not, between people in positions of authority and an angry clique or crowd of ordinary people. The coming together of parties with contrasting interests for the common purpose of cutting somebody out of respectable circles is among the most fascinating aspects of the cases of workplace mobbing described and analyzed in my books.
IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER —
ROUTINELY AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX, FROM RENTAL OUTLETS, OR FOR ONLINE PURCHASE FROM AMAZON AND OTHER RETAILERS
Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984). F. Murray Abraham won best actor for his portrayal of Salieri, a dutiful but mediocre composer upstaged by the obnoxious but more talented Mozart (Tom Hulce), and determined to get rid of him. Salieri is depicted as a one-man mob, compelled by envy to destroy the one he most admires.
Beyond the Gates of Splendor (Jim Hanon, 2004). This mind-boggling documentary begins with news from 1956. A violent tribe in Ecuador's Amazon jungle resolves internal conflict about who will marry whom by ganging up on five incomprehensible foreign missionaries and murdering them. Being Christian, the dead men's wives forgive and embrace the killers. An incredible story, especially to cynical viewers, nonbelievers in Christianity, and believers in myths about noble savages.
Bonfire of the Vanities (Brian DePalma, 1990). Critics measured this film against the Tom Wolfe novel on which it is based, and it came up short. Viewed on its own, it is a great movie: irreverent, wickedly funny and suspenseful, with stellar performances by Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, and Melanie Griffith. Wolfe's abhorrence of human herds, the "jackals yapping at the heels of their prey," comes through loud and clear. The "Great White Defendant" (Hanks) is amazed by how much collective hate is heaped on him. "Why am I so important?" he asks the journalist (Willis). Replies the latter, "You're not important. You're dinner." This portrayal of public mobbing in postmodern America is as timely now as it was a quarter-century ago.
Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, 1979). A case of administrative mobbing in the British army during its war against the Boers. Lord Kitchener and his brass scapegoat three officers from Australia. Morant's requested epitaph (from Matthew 10: 30) captures the special horror of being mobbed in one's workplace: "A man's foes will be they of his own household." Arguably the best Australian film ever made.
Bully (Larry Clark, 2001). Based (whether loosely or closely is a matter of debate) on true events in Florida, this film is useful for illustrating the difference between bullying and mobbing, as these terms are used in research on abusive human relations. The character of Bobby (Nick Stahl) is a genuine bully, swaggering with pleasure in his domination of other members of a clique of teenagers. The others then form themselves into a mob for eliminating Bobby once and for all. A very harsh film.
Butterfly (Jose Luis Cuerda, 1999). Amidst the fear, danger, and ambiguity of Spain on the eve of civil war, Don Gregorio (Fernan Gomez) is a veteran schoolteacher who embodies what education ought to mean. Events conspire to make him an enemy of the state, and even those who love the teacher join in eliminating him. This film sparkles with insight and irony.
Caine Mutiny, The (Columbia, Edward Dmytryk, 1954). The tight ship – isolated, hierarchical, vulnerable, with little room for individual rights – is a classic setting for elimination processes. In this case Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) is eliminated. The question is how much of Queeg’s lunacy is personal pathology, and how much is situational, originating in Fred McMurray’s and others’ insidious undermining of the captain’s leadership.
Capturing the Friedmans (Magnolia, Andrew Jarecki, 2003). Police and community hysteria multiply Arnold Friedman's one crime into dozens of worse crimes. His and his son Jesse's guilty pleas are probably false. A haunting documentary that uses footage from the Friedmans' own home movies to chronicle the family's destruction. One feels shame to have watched this truthful tale of torture, but its memory lingers.
Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976). Classic horror of two kinds. The first is believable: ostracization and humiliation of a classmate (Sissy Spacek) by high-school seniors who have in this respect formed themselves into a mob. The classmate's telekinetic response is less believable but even more horrific, and it appeals deliciously to the common human hunger for revenge. Rent the original, not the 2002 remake.
Chef (Jon Favreau, 2014). Virtual mobbing ensues when a restaurant critic pans a chef on his popular blog and the chef clicks on the wrong button for his Twitter reply. Thanks to Buffalo, NY, educator Rich Marotto for alerting me to this funny-but-serious dramatization of a new kind of ganging up in our digital age, and of the luck, pluck, and smarts required for the target to get back on his feet. Actors are at the top of their form in this celebration of passion for good food, friends, and family. If you don't mind a happy ending, nor quirky characters uniformly portrayed with generosity and humor, you'll enjoy this cautionary tale about the hazards of social media.
Children's Hour, The (William Wyler's 1962 adaptation of Lillian Hellman's 1934 stageplay). Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, friends since high school, run a girl's boarding school. One of their charges starts a rumor that they are lesbians. It is one community against two women. "What is happening here?" laments MacLaine. "Has everybody gone insane?" A heartbreaking tale that shows the force of collective opprobrium: how stigma gets inside the heads of the stigmatized.
Count of Monte Cristo, The (Kevin Reynolds, 2002). This is the latest of many screen versions of Alexandre Dumas’s timeless story of the vengefulness induced by being ganged up on and wrongly punished. Anybody mobbed at work and cut off from ties of love and career can identify with Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) and his quest for revenge. Thankfully, the film is faithful to the moral Dumas suggested a century and a half ago: revenge is not the answer.
Crucible, The (Twentieth Century Fox, Nicholas Hytner, 1996). Paul Scofield, best known for playing the heroically good Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, is cast in this film as John Danforth, the evil-doing judge of the witches at Salem. Explaining (in his preface to the Penguin filmscript) why he cast Scofield in the role, director Hytner wrote: “It would have been easy enough to find one of those actors who specialize in the sinister, but Danforth's particular danger is that his convictions are genuine and his commitment to rooting out the Devil is deeply felt.” Arthur Miller's play focuses on John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his accuser, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder). Hytner thought the story as timely in the 1990s, amidst “rigid intellectual orthodoxies of college campuses,” as when it was staged in 1952, in the era of McCarthyism and anticommunist witch hunts.
Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989). In a traditional, button-down New England prep school, Robin Williams plays an English teacher enamoured of Whitman and Thoreau. A tragic incident demonstrates what a threat he is. An indictment with multiple signatures is arranged, and a great teacher bites the dust.
Devils, The (Ken Russell, 1971). Based on Aldous Huxley's account in The Devils of Loudon (1952), this is the true story of Urbain Grandier, a priest and pastor who was the target of a collective discreditation campaign in his parish in France, and who was ultimately burned at stake as a witch in 1634. Like Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), this film fastens on the gore of torture and physical killing, to the point of obscuring its social and moral meaning. I would sooner recommend Huxley's book or the more recent and even better one by Robert Rapley, A Case of Witchcraft: the Trial of Urbain Grandier (1998).
Disclosure (Warner Bros., Barry Levinson, 1994) This exposé of jockeying for power in a large software company nicely illustrates how organizational mechanisms, in this case the company’s sexual harassment tribunal, can be seized upon by resourceful employees and deployed as weapons against enemies. Demi Moore plays an upwardly mobile executive who uses the tribunal for her advancement. Michael Douglas tries to use it to save his neck. Physical evidence helps one side win, but neither side gives up.
Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2004). A settled community, whether of chickens or humans, has a devil of a time accepting and integrating into itself an outsider, a come-from-away, a new kid on the block. Among humans, hypocritical patronizing of the newcomer easily gives way to undisguised hate. The three hours of watching Nicole Kidman progress from welcome to unwelcome guest pass quickly. A stark, absorbing work by a brilliant Danish filmmaker.
An Enemy of the People (Arthur Miller, 1966). Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play may be the single most chilling, powerful , truthful theatrical depiction of the mobbing of a whistleblower. Perhaps someday, it will be adapted to the big screen in a blockbuster film. Until then, we have to be satisfied with this adroit screening of the play by the author of The Crucible. Originally made for TV, it is a hard-to-find DVD.
Few Good Men, A (Columbia, Bob Reiner, 1992). The tight ship that spawns a mobbing is in this case on land: the isolated, threatened, groupthink-saturated U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. An undesirable Marine is eliminated with more finality than intended. Two soldiers are on trial for the murder, but their lawyers (Tom Cruise and Demi Moore) hold the commanding officer (Jack Nicholson) responsible.
From Here to Eternity (Columbia, Fred Zinnemann, 1953). In Pearl Harbor just before Japan's attack, a U.S. army private (Montgomery Clift) is mobbed by fellow soldiers for declining to join his regiment's boxing team. The captain approves. "if a man don't go his own way," Clift's character insists, "he's nothin." The brass eventually bust the captain, but not before loves and lives are lost. Oscars for best picture and best supporting actor (Frank Sinatra), with nominations also for Clift, Burt Lancaster, and Deborah Kerr. Zinneman said his goal was just to tell the truth.
Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944) For reasons of her own, the maid (Angela Lansbury) helps the husband (Charles Boyer) convince the wife (Ingrid Bergman) that she is losing her mind, but the gang in this classic thriller is really just one man. The film's relevance here is Bergman's Oscar-winning portrayal of how it feels when just about everybody you interact with tells you you've gone mad.
Guilty by Suspicion (Irwin Winkler, 1990). The year is 1952. Filmmaker David Merrill (Robert De Niro) has been reported to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Word has gotten around. The doors on his career are closing fast—all except the exit-door. He has only to purge himself and name his friends. Ruth Merrill (Annette Bening) stands by him. The film builds to a chilling display of the committee's hysteria in the closing scene.
Human Stain, The (Robert Benton, 2003). Powerful screen adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel, about an aging professor in a New England College (Anthony Hopkins) who is ganged up on by colleagues, charged with racism, and run out of his job. The story appears too bizarre to be believed, except by people with personal experience of life on North American college campuses in the closing decade of the twentieth century.
Hunt, The (Thomas Vinterberg, 2013). The plot is not new. Hysteria surrounding child sexual abuse has been exposed in many books and films, notably Indictment (see below), the excellent documentary on the McMartin trial in California. An article in wikipedia describes many famous real-life cases. This drama, however, captures with extraordinary power the essentials of how such hysteria typically unfolds. Mads Mikkelsen plays a falsely accused kindergarten teacher upon whom the full brunt of a small town's collective hostility falls. Vinterberg's believable, engaging film brings the phenomenon into focus with dazzling clarity, and drives home the basic truth that once a group has demonized a target, cemented the target into members' minds as an embodiment of evil, chiseling away that conception is all but impossible. The target never quite lives it down, except by escape (difficult in this age of electronic media) into an altogether different social context. Danish and English, English subtitles.
I Like to Work -- Mobbing (Francesca Comencini, 2004; original title is “Mi Piace Lavorare”). Intentional dramatization of workplace mobbing in white-collar bureaucracies, based on cases reported to labour unions in Italy. Nicoletta Braschi plays Anna, a woman humiliated at work and eventually forced to resign. Released in the UK and chosen for the Chicago International Film Festival in late 2004.
Indictment: the McMartin Trial (Abby and Myra Mann, 1991). HBO dramatization of the prosecution, 1983-89, of seven staff members of a California preschool on charges of child sexual abuse. From the longest and costliest trial in U.S. history, no convictions were obtained. This film depicts a terrible evil, and it is not child abuse.
Joan of Arc (Victor Fleming, 1948). Probably still the best film on the Maid of Orleans. Ingrid Bergman's portrayal of the fifteenth-century peasant girl won her an Oscar nomination. It ably dramatizes the transition from hero to villain, the functioning of tribunals, and the social importance of humiliation. Joan confesses, then recants, much as John Proctor does three centuries later in The Crucible. Rome canonized her in 1920.
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). This film won Maximilian Schell an Oscar. Spencer Tracy also starred. By the time the film begins, six million Jews have been murdered, and there are 30 million war dead. The defeated Nazi leaders have been put on trial. The question is whether the obvious evil in which they have taken part is excused by the legal and political pressures to which they were subject.
Les miserables (Columbia, 1997, Bille August). The third major film version of Victor Hugo's novel, superseding those of 1935 and 1978. Liam Neeson plays Valjean, an ex-convict in postrevolutionary France who is trying to “become honest and good again.” Police Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush), with the law on his side, devotes his life to destroying Valjean. Who does more evil and less good, less evil and more good, Valjean or Javert?
Life of David Gale, The (Alan Parker, 2003). Critics panned this well-crafted thriller, possibly because they couldn't believe humans might actually think and act like philosophy professors David Gale (Kevin Spacey) and Constance Harraway (Laura Linney). Having decades of personal experience in academe, I found their strange ways quite believable (so, apparently, did moviegoers, who loved the film). This is the story of what happens to a respected prof after he is falsely accused of rape and run out of his job. The charge is dropped, his accuser says sorry, but the stigma shatters his career and family life, leading him and a terminally ill colleague to concoct a novel scheme for giving purpose to their lives. A cinematic gem.
Lord of the Flies (Harry Hook, 1990). An Americanized dramatization of William Golding's novel about 25 schoolboys lost and on their own on a tropical island after a plane crash. An autocratic leader emerges, using collective anxiety and fear to fuel a panic for bolstering his power. Group cohesion is reinforced by the group’s murder of undesirables.
Lords of Discipline, The (Paramount, Herb Jaffe and Gabriel Katzka 1983). A story not unlike Lord of the Flies, but more formalized. David Keith stars as the friend of a black cadet in a military academy of the American South.
Malena (Giuseppe Tornatore, 2000) Malena (Monica Bellucci) and Nino marry, but then comes World War II, Nino goes off to fight and die, and Malena struggles to survive in her village in Sicily. She is a woman so beautiful as to arouse lust in the men, envy in the women, and gossip among all of them. She eventually becomes what the villagers want her to be, and when the war ends, they join to humiliate her utterly. Malena's character resembles that of the young widow in Zorba the Greek.
Man for all Seasons, A (Columbia, Fred Zinnemann, 1966). This is the story of Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, who went from hero to villain in the space of six years, for resisting the centralization of power under Henry VIII. More was beheaded for treason in 1535. Rome canonized him exactly 400 years later.
Map of the World, A (1999, stars Signourney Weaver). A city couple with two children move to the country. He farms, she works as a school nurse. A tragic accident leads to her being accused of child sexual abuse, and all the good people of the community join in condemning her. Painful to watch for its realistic portrayal of panic-induced persecution. Film concludes with a poignant moment of human connectedness.
Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004). Lindsay Lohan stars as Cady Heron, a girl stepping out of Africa into a clique-laden American high school. Vivid portrayal of peer pressure, the pain of exclusion, and subtle techniques of dominance in the culture of teenaged girls. Humour throughout and a worthwhile moral at the end.
Mean Creek (Jacob Estes, 2004). You've seen all the kids in this film in your local corner store. Their performances are amazingly believable. None is an angel. All evoke sympathy, including the bully whom the others decide to teach a lesson. Realistic depiction of the misgivings and reconsiderings that are often part of mob formation. Nobody intends for things to go so far. A beautifully sad film.
Mr. Holland's Opus (1995). A low-brow version of Dead Poets Society, easier for people of non-elite backgrounds to relate to. The school in this case is public, the students are from the hoi polloi, and the ostensive reason for eliminating an unbureaucratized romantic is budget cuts. The film presents Richard Dreyfuss as a genuinely good music teacher.
Murder on a Sunday Morning (Jean-Savier De Lestrade, 2001; Oscar for best documentary). Positively but mistakenly identified by an eye witness, black teenager Brenton Butler is wrongly charged with the murder of a tourist in Florida. Police and prosecutors are sure of his guilt. Public defender Patrick McGuiness successfully exposes the wrongness of the prosecution's case. This film by a talented French crew deserved its Academy Award.
Nasty Girl, The (Miramax, Michael Verhoeven, 1990). Lena Stolze plays a precocious girl who becomes the town superstar when she wins an essay prize. Then, as she uses her writing and investigative skills to dig up the town's Nazi past, she becomes a public enemy. In a threatened group, the line between hero and villain is thin. German with English subtitles.
Odd Girl Out (Tom McLoughlin, 2004). Made-for-TV film adaptation of Rachel Simmons's perceptive book of the same title, about mobbing among adolescent girls. Alexa Vega stars as a girl so pretty, smart, talented and popular that she arouses in her peers a collective urge to destroy. Painful to watch. Similar to Carrie and Mean Girls (see above) but more truthful and therefore more horrifying, and with the best ending of the three, this film and/or the book belongs in the core curriculum of every high school.
On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954). In Kazan’s classic, a good man (Marlon Brando), along with the police, courts, organized religion, and a beautiful girl, defeat the mob, represented here by the corrupt leadership of a longeshoremen’s union. This film is valuable for its contrast to The Crucible (see above), based on the play by Arthur Miller (Kazan’s adversary in 1950s US politics), wherein the police, courts, organized religion, and a beautiful girl are themselves the mob, coalescing to defeat a good man.
Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957). The social processes dramatized here in the French Army during World War I — careerism, scapegoating, administrative mobbing, a kangaroo court — are essentially the same as can be found in civilian bureaucracies, though generally nonviolent in the latter. Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) gives a truthful answer to the condemned men who protest their innocence, that it doesn't matter. This film was so powerful an indictment of military culture that it was not screened in France until 1975, nor in Spain until 1986.
Pretty Persuasion (Marcos Siega, Skander Halim, 2005). The main mobbers are three teenage girls who target their English teacher with false charges of sexual assault. Evan Rachel Wood gives a believable performance as conscienceless Kimberley, the clique leader. Despite funny moments, this is a basically repulsive portrayal of the duplicitous, narcissistic, hypersexualized culture in which the girls hatch their plot.
Reader, The (Stephen Daldry, 2008; screenplay by David Hare, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink). A woman who took part in the official, lethal scapegoating of Jews in Nazi Germany is herself scapegoated by fellow SS guards when they are tried together for their crimes in the 1950s. Kate Winslet won an Oscar for her portrayal of the simple, credulous, illiterate Hanna Schmitz, but the more haunting character is Hanna's young lover (played by David Kross and Ralph Fiennes). He is bright, well-read, and schooled in law, but like millions of Germans in the 1930s and billions of humans in other places and times, he cannot bring himself to speak out at a crucial moment in defense of the one on whom others have ganged up.
Ridicule (PolyGram Video, 1996). In prerevolutionary France, verbal and sexual weapons are deployed to humiliate a witty, civic-minded nobleman (Charles Berling), and expel him from the court of Louis XVI. The ending is happier for him than for the king. Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film. French with English subtitles.
River's Edge (Tim Hunter, 1987). In a clique of half a dozen teenagers estranged from the adult world, a psychopathic boy murders a girl. The film shows how the group accepts and conceals the crime. Here is groupthink in the extreme, bolstered by mind-altering drugs, and exposed by an adult loner consumed by guilt for a crime of his own. Based on a true story.
Scarlet Letter, The (Roland Jaffe, 1995). Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel shows how identifying somebody as evil and humiliating her serves to purge the prosecutors of their own guilt. It also shows that ritual degradation of a miscreant can strengthen social cohesion just as effectively as putting her to death. This film adaptation has a happier ending than the book. Demi Moore is Hester Prynne.
School Ties (Paramount, Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing, 1992). Brendan Fraser plays a working class Jewish kid enrolled in an elite prep school on a football scholarship. Class, ethnicity and religion make him an outsider. An occasion arises for his classmates to get rid of him.
Stalin (HBO, Ivan Passer, 1992). Robert Duvall plays the dictator in this biography, which shows how his frequent purges of undesirables in the party elite reinforced group solidarity and helped keep him in power. The higher the position of a newly unmasked enemy of the people, the more effectively his elimination encourages conformity. Made for TV, this three-hour film won several Golden Globe awards.
Suddenly Last Summer (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1960). Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn both won Oscar nominations for their roles in this film adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play. Just witnessing attack by a murderous mob is so horrific it drives Taylor's character mad. She recovers from this psychiatric injury by facing up to what happened and describing it out loud. In a 2007 essay, I describe crows mobbing a conspecific and cannibalizing it. That is what humans do in this film.
Swept from the Sea (Phoenix Tristar, 1997). Based on Joseph Conrad's short story, "Amy Foster." In a Cornish village in the late nineteenth century, the love of two pariahs (Rachel Weisz and Vincent Perez) for each other tempers the pain of exclusion. A physician (Ian McKellen) separates himself from the herd enough to embrace as his brother the stranger who comes from afar. “And bear in mind,” he lectures the eliminators, “as you swill your ale and tell your filthy tales, that to take part in the violence of the mob is as low as a man who calls himself a man can fall.” Yet the physician fails to recognize as his sister the stranger who is native-born. The end celebrates repentance, forgiveness, and hope.
Zorba the Greek (Michael Cacoyannis, 1964). "They all want her and they hate her because they cannot have her" — and so the beautiful young widow is humiliated and eventually put to death. Her spineless English lover dares not intervene, but sends for Zorba (Anthony Quinn), whose attempt at rescue fails. Even beyond the one scene of mob violence, the movie showcases the herd mentality, the power of the group, in a Cretan village. The film won several academy awards.