5 films to inspire CPAs

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, here are some movies with important themes for accountants.
By Cheryl Meyer

The 88th Academy Awards ceremony is approaching, and with that annual event comes a focus on films that have wowed audiences around the globe. Movies inspire people, offer them a release from reality, and give them a chance to pause and ponder life and their decisions. The impact of motion pictures is not lost on accountants. Several movie-goers in the profession offered to share their favorite inspirational films over the years. Here are their choices (all available on streaming video):

All the President’s Men (1976). Based on the nonfiction book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, this movie shows how the dogged journalists uncovered the Watergate scandal. Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) famously “follow the money” in their investigation of a break-in at the Watergate office complex, discovering a conspiracy that ultimately brings down Richard Nixon’s presidency. The film, which garnered four Oscars, showcased Woodward and Bernstein’s sheer tenacity in uncovering the truth, even at great personal risk.

“As CPAs, sometimes it’s just that kind of determination that can distinguish us in upholding the public interest and the trust that our clients and employers place in us,” said Dan Griffiths, CPA, director of strategic planning for Tanner LLC in Salt Lake City. “I get inspired every time I watch this classic.”

Viewing tip: Keep an eye on how the lighting changes in the movie. It’s no coincidence that one place is far brighter than the others.

Schindler’s List (1993). This heart-rending motion picture, based on a book by Thomas Keneally, focuses on German businessman Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) and his accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley). Together they devise a plan to save 1,200 Polish Jews from being sent to Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. They did this by creating a list of Jews—including women, children, and the elderly—who Schindler argued were needed as laborers and thus were exempt from being sent to the death camps.

“Stern was instrumental in convincing Schindler to use Jewish labor, and Stern was also responsible for identifying the Jews that were most at risk and needed to be added to the list,” said Sara Kern, CPA, Ph.D., associate professor of accounting at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. Kern noted that her favorite quote in the movie was when Schindler said to Stern: “My father was fond of saying you need three things in life: a good doctor, a forgiving priest, and a clever accountant. The first two, I’ve never had much use for.” The film won seven Academy Awards.

Viewing tip: While All the President’s Men uses lighting to advance its themes, Schindler’s List director Steven Spielberg opts for a dramatic use of one particular color in this mostly black-and-white film.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994). This film, based on a Stephen King novella, focuses on banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), who is sent to a brutal prison after being wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. He finds that providing financial advice to the guards and the warden—including being forced to devise a money laundering scheme—awards him a measure of protection from some of the most violent inmates.

The Shawshank Redemption depicts someone with financial skills in a way that does not adhere to the accountant stereotype,” said Ken Milani, CPA, Ph.D., an accountancy professor at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. “It also displays the power of information and how information can be used for good and evil.”

Viewing tip: Listen closely towards the end of the film and you’ll hear that the cell number of Andy’s friend Red, played by Morgan Freeman, bears more than a passing resemblance to another famous room in a movie based on a Stephen King work. (Hint: Don’t “Overlook” it.) 

The Untouchables (1987). Set in the 1920s in Chicago, this film focuses on U.S. Treasury Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his frustrating attempt to take down gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro) during the Prohibition Era. While Ness was unable to arrest Capone on murder, bootlegging, and racketeering charges, he worked closely with veteran police officer Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) and Treasury agent and accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), to nail Capone on tax evasion.  Connery won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The movie is filled with memorable moments, from De Niro’s invocation of America’s pastime to “inspire” his fellow gangsters (while wielding a baseball bat), to Smith’s brainy accountant getting to play the hero when he discovers just how to bring down Capone.

The film highlighted “human curiosity, determination, and resourcefulness,” said Mitch Wenger, Ph.D., assistant professor of accounting at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss. “Not coincidentally, these traits are also important for modern data analytics ... [and] can be extremely important when working on audit, tax, and advisory engagements as well,” he added.  

Viewing tip: The scene where Costner and Andy Garcia rescue a runaway baby carriage on a flight of stairs during a gunfight is an homage to a famous scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.

Wall Street (1987): This cautionary tale, set in New York City in the age of excess that was the 1980s, follows the rise and fall of ambitious junior stockbroker Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen). Fox is enamored of merciless corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), who leads him into a cesspool of illegal activities such as insider trading and securities fraud. Douglas won an Oscar for Best Actor for his role as the man who extolled “Greed is good.”

The movie, noted Joseph Rugger, CPA, the CFO for Jonesboro Prosthetic and Orthotic Laboratory in Jonesboro, Ark., highlights what can happen to young professionals in their quest to get to the top. “At some point in all of our careers, we as accountants are faced with the challenge of whether or not we want to stay on the good side, or take shortcuts to the bad side,” he said. “It is a great reminder of the good, bad, and the ugly that comes with blind ambition.”

Viewing tip: Look out for Sheen’s real-life father, Martin, who plays his pops here, too. 

Cheryl Meyer

Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer.

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