At its best, Hollywood can expose and explore real-life issues rather than just exploit them. Hollywood loves risk. Individual creativity, public taste and mood, and the expenditure of vast amounts of money make for high stakes and high uncertainty. Risk is a popular theme in the movies themselves, though of course, Hollywood manages the odds to produce happy endings from unpromising starts. That’s entertainment!
Tony Crouch, Outstand’s Risk Management expert, shares his Top 10 Risk Management Movies.
I have chosen these because they lay bare the human challenge of decision making under uncertainty, and the limitations of the systems we create to manage the outcome. Warning – Spoiler Alert!
1 Dirty Harry (dir Don Siegal, 1971)
The favourite at any risk conference. The villain has to decide whether to grab the gun. Does Harry Callaghan have a bullet left in his 44 Magnum?
Learning – We get risk averse when the stakes are high. Callaghan knows this and wins his bluff.
2 Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)
Does Icarus II divert to join up with the abandoned Icarus I and so double the bomb payload heading for the sun? The theoretician, Cara, proposes the course change. Opposing him is the practical engineer, Mace, who sees the extra complexity and mission vulnerability. Cara prevails, but Mace is prescient.
Learning – Having taken the higher risk path, no measures were taken to address the increased vulnerability to error, and manage down this higher risk. Such an error does occur and imperils the mission and lives.
3 Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
John Hammond seems to have thought of everything. There are elaborate and extensive controls to keep guests safe and intellectual property secure. One greedy employee brings the whole system crashing down.
Learning – beware of elegance in control systems. Complexity and automation do not create resilience. And of course, as the mathematician, Ian, says – do not mess with nature. Read an excellent and in depth analysis of the systems failures at Dinosaurs and Risk Management.
4 Trading Places (John Landis, 1983)
Separate from the main theme of socio-economic reversal is the story of commodity markets. The Duke brothers are commodity brokers and traders , wagering their own money on agricultural commodity price movements. They also cheat . The climax of the film takes place on the floor on the New York Mercantile Exchange, when a Duke Brothers attempt to corner the frozen orange juice market is foiled.
Learning – “beating the odds” requires knowledge not available to others. This can include illegal insider knowledge.
5 Fail-safe (Sidney Lumet, 1964)
At the height of the cold war, a computer malfunction results in US B52 bombers receiving unauthorized instructions to attack USSR targets. There is a frantic effort to recall or destroy them, including a failed attempt at collaboration with the USSR military. But the system is designed to make recall impossible once planes are past the “Fail-safe” point.
Learning – as with Jurassic Park, there are limits to automation in controls. This control system was designed only to counter Soviet aggression and deceit. No attention was paid to the likelihood and impact of system error. There was no allowance for rethink or any human intervention.
6 The Matrix (Wachowski brothers, 1999)
“You take the blue pill… the story ends; you wake up in your bed and believe… whatever you want to believe. If you take the red pill, you stay in wonderland a little bit longer; and I show you just how deep this rabbit hole goes.” Neo takes the red pill.
Learning – this poses the clearest distinction possible between risk seeking and risk avoiding. There are no grounds for making the decision except emotional inclination. Would Neo have taken the red pill if he knew what mayhem lay ahead?
7 The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1967)
A producer and an accountant seek out the most offensive script and poorest actor to make a play that would be bound to fail. This would conceal the con trick played on a large number of “Angels”, each of whom in innocence fund fully the production. The combination of script and actor in fact results in a success.
Learning – nothing is certain in life. Always have a contingency ready for the outlier events.
8 Poseidon Adventure (Ronald Neame, 1972)
Should surviving passengers wait in apparent safety for rescue or save themselves by undertaking a perilous journey to the upturned hull?
Learning – Doing nothing is rarely the low risk response to threat, even if action seems dangerous and outcomes seem uncertain. We can always justify inaction in bad faith by citing one cause or another. In this case, the surviving passengers were told that “help is on its way”
9 Rogue Trader (James Dearden, 1999)
Another risk management favourite. Nick Leeson stumbles on an effective way to conceal trading losses, but quickly finds its limit when a Nikkei index bet falls foul of the Kobe earthquake. Poor Barings Bank was not too big to fail.
Learning – another false “beating the odds” strategy – this time the losses are concealed from view by accounting tricks. This remains undetected due to the greed of colleagues and the inadequacy of controls.
10 Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, 1974)
A health and safety fable makes it into the Top Ten at No 10. The risk management system that is vital for such a novel and radical construction is completely circumvented by a combination of greed, corruption and incompetence. A fire ensues and many people die, good and bad.
Learning – just as brake effectiveness sets car speed limits, it is the safety protections that limit size and height of buildings. The Fire Chief (Steve McQueen) noted that the height of the building itself posed an unacceptable risk from fire. The cost cutting measures and fraudulent certification just increased the likelihood of that fire occurring.
Many films have delved deep into the principles of risk management, offering lessons, guidance and a form of entertainment.
If you would like to learn more about managing risk and developing a robust process for decisions-making contact us today.