Monday, April 19, 2010

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt -- sacrificing for career

Director: Peter Hyams, 2009. (PG-13)

What would you do for your job? Alternatively, what would you sacrifice for your career? Hyams focuses on these two key ethical questions in this clumsy crime thriller.

The first time we see CJ Nicholas (Jesse Metcalfe) he is in front of the TV camera conducting a live taste test of different coffee brands. Quite a come down for an ace investigative reporter. His plastered smile disappears the moment the red light on the camera fades, and it is clear from his face that he desires something more. His career is stuck in the slow decaffeinated lane.

In the background, though, he is investigating the DA, Martin Hunter (Michael Douglas, The Game). In partnership with his cameraman, Corey Finley (Joel Moore, the Portland actor who was a supporting actor in Avatar), they think they have a scoop on the man who appears a shoo-in for the Louisiana Governor's job at the next election. An attorney who hit a losing streak of cases and faced losing his public office, he suddenly hit gold with a long string of 16+ successive convictions, putting criminals into prison. But in each case, with nothing more than circumstantial evidence, he suddenly produced DNA evidence at the 11th hour that tied the defendant to the crime. CJ believes Hunter fabricated the evidence and had it planted to secure his convictions.

This brings us to the first key question: what would you do for your job? Is there anything that you would do to gain the edge in your career? Gaining an edge is one thing, if it is done ethically with the right motives. But lying and cheating to get ahead is clearly wrong. It breaks laws of the land as well as moral guidelines. Hunter resorted to evidence tampering to gain success, and descended to the level of the criminals he was prosecuting. But would you do something similar in your field? Is it worth the risk? Not to mention the fact that it violates virtually every ethical standard of most religions. As followers of Christ, we are called to love and serve in honesty and integrity (Gal. 5:13). We do that to honor God (1 Cor. 10:31), even if it means we lose the promotion or the election. God's approval is superior to man's (1 Thess. 2:4)!

When CJ discusses his suspicions with his editor, he cannot offer any proof and is ordered off the "case". Of course where would the movie be if he did just that. Instead he pursues a relationship with Ella Crystal (Amber Tamblyn), an assistant DA who works for Hunter. And he concocts a scheme where he will frame himself for a random murder, and document the DA producing the DNA evidence at the very last minute. In this way he thinks he can complete his investigation, bring it to the spotlight with maximum flair, and win a Pulitzer prize.

The problem with Reasonable Doubt is that is too choppy and cheesy. The first act focuses on CJ and Finley preparing their "Pulitzer Plan". Slow and boring, it seems unnecessary. The second act develops CJ's relationship with Ella, and this is too rapid and awkward. There is no chemistry between the two. Indeed, the acting is poor throughout, using mostly TV actors; even Michael Douglas looks like he is on auto-pilot. Reasonable Doubt is a remake of a 50s movie and feels like a B-movie production. Having said that, the third act, when it gets to the courtroom and beyond, offers some interesting plot twists. Indeed, the conclusion is unexpected and almost makes the movie worth watching to the end.

So why would CJ frame himself for murder? To capture the prize and secure a promotion. He is willing to put everything on the line, including his freedom and his very life, for this goal. In the courtroom his future lies in the hands of the jury of his 12 peers. Later, his future lies in the hands of Ella, as she must choose between her love for CJ and her loyalty to Hunter.

That brings us to the second question: what would you sacrifice for your career? Would you be willing to give up your freedom for your job? Would you put your life at risk for a promotion? Some would answer yes. And some people do, particularly in dangerous professions, like the military. But for those of us in sedentary and safe careers as engineers or electricians, doctors or dentists, nurses or nannies, clerks or cashiers, what would we do for our careers? If we profess Christ, we need to be careful how we answer this question.

As followers of Jesus, we should be ready to give up our lives for Christ. To live for Christ is to die to this world. In general, for those of us not in vocational ministry, our careers and our jobs are important but not critical. They are not important enough that we would sacrifice our family, our lives. We have a mission from God to live out our faith before the eyes of the world in a loving way (Jn. 13:34-35) so that others might smell the sweet fragrance of Jesus (2 Cor. 2:16) and choose to find out more (Psa. 34:8). When we put business and money before this mission, in an ambitious desire to advance, we are really sacrificing our faith. That is not a good trade-off. Faith and family should come before career advancement.

When Reasonable Doubt ends we discover what Ella chooses and what CJ accomplishes. And we see that sacrificing for career is an empty, though costly sacrifice. As Matthew said in his gospel, "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul" (Matt. 16:26).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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