Compliance Movie Maelstrom Explained

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I adored my Philosophy classes in college. Adored them.

To sit in a room and ponder the meaning of life, the universe and everything seemed to just work for me. But many of my fellow students weren’t as into it. I should know, I was paid to tutor many of them as a TA throughout my freshman and sophomore years. And because of that weird job experience, I know that many of you just don’t get why people like myself enjoy these sorts of quasi-deranged conversations. It’s OK. But one of the places where this gets truly mind blowing is when Philosophy/Ethics collides with the real world. Sure, Hitler and the gas chambers of World War II. But what about real world experiences that get a little more nebulous and difficult to decipher?

But first – WARNING – the rest of this post is 100% spoiler filled. If you are hoping to watch this movie without having it spoiled – reading further will destroy that hope. I promise. OK? Everyone sufficiently warned? Great.

What if someone contacted you at work and addressed themselves as local police officers, operating a sting operation. Surprise, the customer standing across from you is a suspected sex offender that the police need your help capturing. So, would you please begin disrobing in order to catch them? No? Stupid made up example of mine, I know. Actually not. This literally occurred on 30 November 2000, with a female McDonald’s manager in Leitchfield, Kentucky.

Here’s another crazy made up example that could never happen in the real world. What if you work at an Applebee’s as an assistant manager and your regional manager calls and asks you to detain and strip search one of your waitresses? Of course you don’t comply, because that is insane. Actually, this is a real incident that happened in Salem. And in this incident, the assistant manager complied with the caller, telling the caller all the while what she was doing. Worse, as the manager described each article of clothing as it was removed. And after the waitress was undressed, she was visible to restaurant employees via a nearby window. You literally cannot make this stuff up it’s so insane.

Which brings us to the movie Compliance which tells the story of a perfect storm of Philosophical and Ethical ponderings. Think about it for a second. You are a busy manager at a local fast food joint. A policeman contacts you to let you know that one of your employees has been implicated in a theft of money from a customer’s wallet. The police officer is detained, but would you please detain her until the police are able to get there? Do you comply? Seems farfetched? But so do all of these other horrible examples.

I do love this movie as a philosophical mental exercise. But I’m not going to actually recommend the movie to you. If you’ve read my accounts above, you already know exactly what happens in this movie. The caller accuses a McDonald’s employee of stealing, the manager strip searches her. She then brings in her fiancé to “watch” her while she is busy trying to manage the store. Meanwhile, the manager’s fiancé follows the callers orders and abuses the poor girl. You get it. You don’t need to watch the movie to understand what is happening here. Why avoid the movie? Well, because the movie is sort of a predatory, exploitative exercise as well. I will hand it to Craig Zobel (director of Z for Zachariah), he was pretty determined to not be to overly voyeuristic in the creation of this movie. But at the end of the day, the story is horrifying. And the recreation of the incidents are quasi-horrifying as well. And yet, some have called it a truly unflinching and fantastically strong performance on behalf of Dreama Walker. After all, she had to convince the viewing audience that this character would go along with this terrible ruse. So, it’s up to you, you decide whether you should watch or not.

Real World Compliance Fallout

This particular incident actually happened, almost exactly like it is depicted in the movie, in 2004, in the town of Mount Washington, Kentucky. The 18- year-old employee was strip searched, and humiliated, and ultimately forced to perform oral sex on the manager’s fiancé. The caller was later discovered to be a prison guard in Florida. But he was ultimately acquitted in a trial in 2006. Acquitted after stating he’d never purchased a calling card before, and yet, one was found in his apartment. Oh, and that same calling card was used to call a restaurant the same day that another similar hoax was perpetrated. But it is thought that the jury acquitted mainly because of a lack of direct evidence. (Come on, how does evidence not get anymore direct than that?)

But where does the fault lie? You sit on the jury of this trial, where do you award damages? Or do you award damages at all? Is McDonald’s culpable? The manager? Is she to blame? What about the fiancé? Or the other employees? Is it society at large and the school system? Or is it all just one big horrible misunderstanding?

After years of court cases and findings, McDonald’s was ordered to pay millions of dollars in restitution to the victim. McDonald’s was ordered to pay $400,000 in punitive damages, and $1.1 million in compensatory damages. Worse, the jury decided that the caller was 50% to blame, and McDonald’s was to blame for the other 50%. Later, McDonald’s was ordered to pay an additional $2.4 million in legal fees as well.

The manager, Donna Summers was fired from McDonald’s for violating internal policies prohibiting strip-searches. And also for allowing non-employees to enter the office. And she received one year of probation for the charge of unlawful imprisonment. David Stewart, the fiancé, was charged with a five-year prison sentence for beating the employee, as well as for the sex act. Want to know more? Here is that interview referenced in the movie itself:

The World of Social Engineering

After watching this film, I was 100% on my high horse, despising this person…really really angry about the state of the union of the world today. But then I started thinking. This is literally, social engineering 101. And social engineering is used as a legitimate way to hack someone technologically today. For example, this woman manipulating this phone center support specialist into giving her everything she wanted:

This seems less critical because it isn’t sexual. But once this hacker has her mark’s email address, and control over his phone number, she’ll basically be able to work her way through stealing his entire identity. Take out a loan, you name it. And all because of a well coordinated initial attack, and a weak human in the middle. These sorts of abuses are happening a lot more frequently than you would ever realize.

Compliance Is the World We Live In

The situations that came together to create the events detailed in the movie Compliance are where we are today. The confluence of technology, and societal expectations have made it possible for horrible humans to pick up the phone and ruin another person’s life. It’s truly sad.

Even worse…I literally have no idea how I would rate this movie if forced to give it one. Is it a 5-star movie because of it’s stunning portrayal of a horrific real world tragedy? Or is it a 1 because of its voyeuristic and abusive bent itself? I could say that too about the news organization that played the live video feed on the air as well. Or heck, me! I’m talking about it as well. I just don’t know. Thus my reason for not rating it. But it is a brilliant philosophical and ethical use case for our consideration.

Have you seen this movie? What did you think of it? Who was primarily to blame for what happened? And be careful…if you think someone is 100% to blame, you are probably wrong. Personally, I think 100% of the blame should go to the jury for letting this man on the phone off the hook. This is just unbelievable to me.

Edited by, CY