… The Untouchables: the part where Oscar tells Eliot Ness that he thinks they can bust Al Capone on tax evasion charges. Eliot looks at him as though he’s insane, and asks him, “Try a murderer for not paying his taxes?” Oscar tells him, “Well, it’s better than nothing.”
When people do something wrong, we want to punish them – especially if the something wrong they did was to us or to someone we love. We want revenge. We want to know that the wrongdoers will suffer something similar to the pain they caused, and we’re willing to spend a lot of time, money and energy to see that it happens.
But this can take a toll on us. We may spend all of our emotional energy trying to punish someone, inadvertently allowing that wrongdoer to hurt us again, every single day that he or she pre-occupies our thoughts. We as a society struggle with this, trying to define “justice” and strike a balance between forgiveness and revenge.
Eliot Ness was charged with stopping Al Capone from hurting people. In the end, Capone was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to prison where he died of illness – for all intents and purposes he was stopped from hurting people. But the conversation between Oscar and Eliot highlights an important question: Is that enough? Is it enough that Capone was put away? Is that “justice”? Does it matter whether Capone was convicted of murder, since nothing can bring the murdered back to life anyway? Does it matter what reason existed on paper to put Capone in a little box for the rest of his life?
Oscar tells Eliot that “it’s better than nothing,” and he’s right. If they hadn’t prosecuted him for tax evasion, Capone would not have gone to prison at all. He would never have paid any price for the suffering he caused, and that doesn’t sound like justice by any definition.
I think Oscar is trying to show Eliot a different way to look at his mission: to focus on the outcomes. The outcome of Capone’s actions was that people got killed; the outcome of Eliot’s actions was that Capone went to jail. It isn’t just that “it’s better than nothing.” It’s that it is in fact justice – the kind that doesn’t muck itself up with revenge or forgiveness or questions. The bad guy did bad things, and the good guys put him in jail.
And that’s good enough.
… Tank: the part with the bikers.
Tank is the story of a man whose son Billy, wrongly imprisoned by a corrupt sheriff, is rescued by his Sherman-tank-wielding father, Zack. For days they travel through the back woods of Georgia, attempting to get to the Tennessee state line and legitimate law enforcement. At the state line, the corrupt sheriff and his henchmen create a barrier of eighteen-wheelers and a mud-field that stops the tank just short of the state-line.
But this father and son haven’t been isolated in their flight to justice. Their struggle has been sent to every news reporting agency anyone could think of, Billy’s mom has been on television asking every mother who can hear her to call the governor of Tennessee, and Billy himself has been in radio contact with a news crew, explaining that his dad – injured and in need of medical attention – had been there for him, and so now he will stay with his dad.
A group of motorcycle riders, watching on the news at a bar, express respect and admiration for Billy and his dad. When the sheriff sets up the barrier at the border, they show up too. They contrive a ramp so that one of the bikers can leap to the trapped tank, and that biker risks life and limb to jump out there and bring the tow-rope to Billy. They grab the rope – as does everyone else who has collected on the Tennessee side of the state-line. And all those people hanging onto this rope start to move this huge Sherman tank through the mud.
I’m not sure if this is a realistic possibility; I’ve never tugged on a tank, with or without the help of burly, road-hardened motorcycle enthusiasts. But I know that the kind of corruption the bad guys demonstrated is all too possible – and often an unhappy fact. I know too that parents’ greatest worries are over things we cannot possibly control, that we spend our lives hoping that the world will be kind to our children and being able to do about it absolutely nothing; a movie that allows us to drive a tank to save our little guy is therefore a good movie, no matter how plausible or implausible it might be.
When the world becomes hostile and unfair and vicious, I would like to think there are fathers with tanks, and bikers, and groups of decent people waiting to pull the aggrieved to safety. I would like to think that the evil in the world can be thwarted as easily as a corrupt sheriff can be thrown into the mud and laughed at. I would like to think that the part with the bikers is plausible, and that, if we work together with good intentions and courage, it will eventually be the corrupt-sheriff part of Tank that seems unlikely.