How The Firm (1993) highlighted tax evasion years before the Panama Papers

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The Firm (1993) sees a hotshot tax lawyer accept a high-paying job, only to receive a harsh lesson in the perils of greed. SPOILERS.

What is The Firm about?

Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) graduates top of his Harvard Law School class and is immediately in demand with top law firms. He turns them all down in favour of Bendini, Lambert and Locke, a Memphis firm who outbid his highest salary offer by 20%, then throw in a Mercedes, mortgage deal and country club membership to boot.

For McDeere, who grew up poor, it’s too tantalising to turn down. But in following the money he inadvertently hitches himself to the Mafia – a move that leaves him in mortal danger.

A cautionary tale about greed

When Mitch McDeere graduates from law school he follows an inevitable path: he barters his skills for a salary. There’s nothing uncommon about either this or his love of big money – just think how many books and films end with the hero or heroine becoming suddenly and wildly wealthy, or the way our media pays rapt attention to the world’s wealthiest celebrities and business people.

McDeere gets his ‘happy ending’ at the start of the film, when he’s courted by America’s top law firms. The deal he negotiates with Bendini, Lambert and Locke is impressive: a six-figure salary, car and house package (for starters).

However, it’s also extravagant and – as his wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) reminds him – unnecessary. In choosing money over credibility and principles, McDeere is fast-tracked into a moral nightmare when he discovers his firm deals in Mafia money.

Is Mitch the good guy?

If it sounds as though McDeere gets his just desserts as a slippery lawyer, he kind of does. However, the film also reveals that McDeere has grown up in poverty, and is desperate to be free of it.

This is how Bendini and partners snare Mitch, and presumably why they pick him out in the first place (believing that poverty means they can buy his loyalty). Later, the young woman they arrange to seduce Mitch feeds him a similar story of poverty and powerlessness. In both cases the end result is the same: entrapment.

It’s worth adding that while greed is McDeere’s downfall, poverty is a way for the audience to accept him as an underdog, even when he’s unfaithful.

Everyone’s on the take

The Firm highlights the instances and consequences of greed in several ways:

  • McDeere’s mentor, Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman), does what he wants beyond the limits of satiety and propriety, from drinking at lunch to sleeping around. Both prove to be his undoing.
  • The firm’s downfall lies in its practice of routinely over-charging their clients.
  • Through Sonny Capps we hear how the firm’s clients look for ways to not pay tax, or to launder dirty money.

But while the film has a lot to say about greed, it strays into hypocrisy to do so. The reason for that is its treatment of tax avoidance.

Tax avoidance: the blind spot

The Firm touched on issues of tax avoidance years before the Panama Papers caused massive outrage. For McDeere, however, while Mafia = bad, tax avoidance = kinda OK.

When he first meets Avery, Mitch asks how far he should bend the law. Avery tells him “as far as you can without breaking it”. The work that McDeere is prepared to do as a tax lawyer helps wealthy people hide their money from the State, and thereby sidestep the social contract. That’s why the film is partly set in the Cayman Islands, a noted tax haven.

Isn’t it shocking that the film, its characters and us, the audience, had little reaction or revulsion to the tax practices described in The Firm? Even now, we know of, yet tolerate, tax avoidance schemes used by the world’s largest corporations. We’ve come to accept this as the way the world works. For McDeere and those like him, tax avoidance is something that can be made legal and excusable – if not ethical.

What Mitch learns from the Mafia

By the end of the film, McDeere has moved from ignorance to understanding:

  • Knowledge about who the firm really are (and how to evade them)
  • Greater appreciation for the law. He tells FBI agent Wayne Tarrance (Ed Harris): “you actually made me think about the law. I managed to go through three years of law school without doing that.”
  • He stops denying the existence of his brother, then starts fighting for his release. Rather than working for privileged clients, McDeere starts to help those who really need help.

Perhaps most importantly, Mitch gains integrity. He first battles with this when Tarrance asks him to break client-attorney confidentiality, something that would get McDeere disbarred.

Later Mitch has a similar revelation to John Proctor (The Crucible): one’s name, reputation, and identity should be cherished, not traded for wealth or ease. That’s why McDeere turns down a false life in witness protection, and seeks to be free not just of the firm, but of the FBI.

McDeere also comes to learn what his wife already knows: wealth is an enabler that doesn’t always bring satisfaction. In real life, high interest rates and consumer culture can trap people in debt; in The Firm, it’s a literal entrapment by a corporation that kills those who stand in its way.

At the end of the film, the McDeeres choose a different path, one that takes them back to Boston, to a small life rich with family rather than finances.

The Firm (1993), directed by Sydney Pollack

Picture credit: NeONBRAND via Unsplash