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Off the Books vs. The Untouchables

Key Takeaways

Kevin Costner. Robert De Niro. Sean Connery. Brian De Palma. David Mamet. The Untouchables has an impressive pedigree, but the OTB crew debates whether they made a horrible mistake in keeping The Untouchables in the running for best accounting movie.

Show notes:
Review which movies the crew originally considered when Mike Gravagno asked them to find the best accounting movie.

Tell us what they got right and wrong about the movies they’ve debated so far:

Season 4, Episode 12: Off the Books vs. The Untouchables

Mike Gravagno: Does that kind of stuff matter to you guys, or is a movie a movie and it can take its inspiration and run with it? 

Catherine Tsai: I wanted them to stick a little closer to the facts.

Steve Soter: The acting in the movie is so bad. It doesn't even purport to be a representation of the facts, because I know that these guys are obviously not real. 

Mike: Hello, and welcome to Off the Books where we surf the uncharted waters of accounting, finance, risk, and wherever else the waves take us. This episode is brought to you by Workiva, the ESG, risk, reporting, and compliance platform that simplifies your complex work and helps you get into the fanciest speakeasies around. Check it out at My name is Mike Gravagno, and I'm an Off the Books producer, recovering Cherry Coke addict, and today's host. I'm looking forward to debiting a great conversation today. And I'm very glad to have you hanging ten with us. With me, as always, are Catherine Tsai and Steve Soter. And we'll be continuing our accounting movie bracket with our eleventh seed, The Untouchables. What's up, guys?

Steve: Hello. 

Catherine: We're back. 

Steve: We're back.

Mike: We're back. It seems like it's been a minute, especially since we've done a movie show.

Steve: Definitely, definitely been a while.

Catherine: I'm remembering we probably should have invited Nick Renkoski, but we don't need that guy. 

Steve Soter: Nah. 

Steve: Hey, Nick, if you're listening, we still love you. 

Mike: Hit him on a future episode. 

Catherine: Next time. 

Steve: Yeah there you go. 

Mike: Now. Before watching it for Off the Books as we always start, what was your relationship with The Untouchables? Catherine? 

Catherine: I had heard it was kind of legendary, but in retrospect, maybe I was thinking of the TV show, not the movie. 

Mike: Interesting. An early hint at feelings, perhaps. Steve? 

Steve: I had no relationship whatsoever. I mean, I knew it existed. I sort of knew what it was about, but other than that, I had zero relationship. We hadn't even started dating yet.

Mike: Similar, I think I confused it with JFK a lot, like early Kevin Costner stuff, and I knew it was Brian De Palma's Normie movie. It doesn't feel so like Brian De Palma out there and the Eliot Ness—honestly, I grew up in Southern California. I really only knew the name because of Dr. Dre's verse in "California Love." 

Steve: Hmmm, I hadn't even connected the dots on that. That's right. 

Mike: The whole time I was like, why do I know this name? And I was like, oh, because I've heard that song.

Steve: Yeah, that's right. 

Mike: Because he's untouchable like Eliot Ness. It's a good line. So we don't have a lot of relationship with this. Should we just dive right into the movie?

Steve: Yes.

Mike: All right.

Steve: Yes. 

Mike: In 1987, Brian De Palma and David Mamet unleashed The Untouchables, the story of Eliot Ness as he formed the team to bring Al Capone to justice during Prohibition. Starring Kevin Costner as Ness, Robert De Niro as Capone, and Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, and Sean Connery as the rest of The Untouchables, the movie would go on to be nominated for four Academy Awards, winning best supporting actor for Connery. Bookies, I ask you this—how often do violence and accounting mix to such riveting results? 

Steve: Not in my experience, Mike. 

Catherine: Really?

Steve: Well, I mean, we need to define accounting. I figure you're talking about just sort of your bread and butter, day in and day out accounting. Now, accounting for like the mob, you know, mafia, that kind of thing, I would suspect that maybe devolves into violence a little more often than just your standard, run-of-the-mill payroll, AP, you know, book revenue, and that kind of thing. 

Mike: You think you're at a dinner about teamwork and the boss brings out a baseball bat because somebody forgot to carry the two. 

Steve: That hasn't happened to me before. 

Mike: You know what, I'm glad. So there's, I do think, let's get into it. Does this count as an accounting movie? Our first question that we always have to tackle. 

Catherine: I'll say yes.

Mike: Yes. 

Steve: Yeah. And actually, well, I think it was sort of a minor point to maybe not the story but to the movie. I feel like to the plot or to what happened, it was actually a very central part. And I actually appreciated that it was pretty rock solid. I mean, you know, in some of these movies, like the connection to accounting is somewhat spurious, right? Like we had sort of talked about that with Cher. What's that movie? 

Mike: Moonstruck. 

Steve: Yeah, Moonstruck. Thank you. But this one—very clear connection to the accounting. And actually, for my part, that was the best part of the movie, which is a very small part.

Mike: It is, but we're going to be doing The Dueling Accountant in the future. But I do think there's dueling accountants here, even though we never see Capone's accountants. It is his book cookers versus mostly Charles Martin Smith's untouchable accountant who are going toe to toe because the whole time Ness is trying to figure out how to bring down Capone. Charles Martin Smith is like, bro, it's in the accounting. It's in the books. And he has to push back. So many people are like, we're not going to bring this murderous thug down because he doesn't pay his taxes, and Charles Martin Smith is kind of more grounded in reality. And he's like, yeah, I think that's the only way we can do this. And he turns out to be right. 

Steve: Yup. The other thing that I think is interesting about this is that I think it questions the stereotype of like if it's mob and it's mafia, you know, they're breaking the law. They're shooting from the hip. Everything's sort of messy and disorganized or whatever. Oh, no, au contraire, right? I mean, like, you've got a ledger. You got to know who gets paid, who, even if it's illegal and fraud and whatever. And I actually think that's probably a pretty accurate representation. And it goes to show you just how important accounting is, right? Somebody gets, you know, shafted on the amount of money they think they're owed. Well, the accounting is going to be able to answer that question, and that's a pretty important question to answer when somebody's life is at stake.

Mike: And it has to be super organized because you have to have your real books that show everything but with little information, but enough that you and your people know how to break the code. And then you have to have your cooked books that you do send to the government. 

Steve: Yeah. 

Mike: It is. Yeah. Real mobs and mafia. I'm rewatching The Wire, and Stringer Bell's organization is very similar. He goes to business classes to get better at being a criminal. They're putting a lot of hard work in to do it right. Catherine, did you feel for Charles Martin Smith's accountant character as he kept trying to get everybody on board and go through the books, not through the liquor? 

Catherine: I did, because it's often the voice of reason that seems to get ignored, or people maybe just don't understand what they're saying or the importance of what they're saying, or that they need to pay attention to what they're saying. 

Mike: You do need to pay attention. And then how do—we've talked about accounting stereotypes a lot. And he is, you know, he is the smallest of the team. He does have glasses. Even his own side ignores him a lot. But then they're like, hey, just the three of us are going to do an impromptu raid, throw him a shotgun. He goes, well, I am an untouchable now. Did that make you proud in your accounting heart, Steve? 

Steve: Uh, sure. I did pick up on the stereotype very quickly. Short, nerdy, glasses, self-righteous a little bit. Yeah, it checked all the boxes, which has been a recurring theme with all these movies. But I appreciated they threw him the shotgun, and he was right there involved. Now, since when do accountants like ride horses and that kind of thing? That's a little bit of a stretch, but... 

Catherine: I thought you would be happy to see how quickly he picked it up. He seemed like, you know, game for trying all that.

Steve: That's fair. You know what, that's fair. That's a good point, Catherine.

Mike: And one of my favorite moments in the movie is after their Canada-U.S. border raid that goes a little awry. When it's done and there's liquor pouring out of the barrels, he is just scooping it out and drinking it. 

Steve: He takes a drink.

Mike: Were you sad that he was the first one on the team to die?

Catherine: I was.

Steve: I was sad, but I wasn't surprised because Capone's a smart dude, right? Like, I mean, that's his jam, right? You got to figure, OK, where are my biggest risks and how do I get rid of those risks? And, you know, taking a bullet is pretty final. I mean, that's kind of gruesome, right? But that shouldn't have been a surprise. 

Catherine: I was hoping he would be alive for his hero moment. 

Mike: Yeah. No. Only I know two of them are Andy Garcia and Costner, both alive at the end, but really, only Costner gets the hero moment. And even Andy Garcia is like, hey, thank you. See you.

Steve: Yeah. 

Mike: When you're looking at risk and you're auditing risks, Steve, how often does a bullet come into play? Do you have to consider that in your reporting? 

Steve: You know, I have not. But maybe you're auditing a gun manufacturer or, you know, munitions manufacturer. I mean, this never happened to me. I'm sure it does happen from time to time.

Mike: I'm glad that your accounting career has been safer.. 

Steve: Yes. 

Mike: ...than these guys'.

Steve: Definitely. 

Mike: Let's pivot a little to historical accuracy. Now, when it comes to—so this movie is based on historical events. You know, The Untouchables led by Ness did track down Capone. But the raid at the Canada-U.S. border did not ever happen. There was never a shoot out the railway or the courthouse. Ness did not kill Netty, who he kills at the end of the movie. He's like Capone's main hitman. Capone and Ness never met. And Capone actually said do not kill the treasury agents. Do not touch them at all. He tried to bribe them, but he was like, I think it'll get so much worse if we go after them with violence. Does that kind of stuff matter to you guys, or is a movie a movie and it can take its inspiration and run with it?

Catherine: I wanted them to stick a little closer to the facts. Like otherwise, like why even make it Capone and Ness? Just make it some random tax people, I guess. 

Steve: Well, and I feel like, and this may take us on a bit of a tangent, but I feel like the movie doesn't—the acting in the movie is so bad. And again, we might disagree on this, but I feel like the acting of the movie is so bad it doesn't even purport to be a representation of the facts, because I know that these guys are obviously not real, right? I'm not even like in my head taken to a place where I think that might even be possible. I really struggled with the acting, and I really struggled with Kevin Costner. And I'm not like a movie aficionado, right? I mean, I'm not like you, Mike, where I, you know, I'm doing like five hours of podcasting on movies every week—just for our audience, you ought to check it out. It is very good. I had a hard time getting into the movie, and I actually struggled more the second time, sort of knowing the story and not even having to divert my attention to just kind of figuring out what was going on, where I could just like sort of sit and watch it. You know, we watched the movie twice to get ready for this recording, and I really struggled. So the fact that it didn't stick to the historical, you know, what actually happened, it didn't bother me a bit because I wasn't even really into it to begin with. 

Catherine: I'm glad you said that about the acting because I was surprised that Sean Connery won an Academy Award. But my high school sociology teacher would say that was Denzel Washington's year, I think for Cry, the Beloved Country (It was Cry Freedom!) Now I'm going to have to look it up. But anyway, I was surprised. If it would go to anyone, I would say Robert De Niro. I thought his was pretty good. 

Steve: Yes. Of all of them, that was the one I enjoyed the most. I want more Capone because he was believable, right? Like, OK, this must have been what Capone was like.

Mike: Of like, mellow, mellow, mellow, mellow. Big, violent bursts so he wins you in. You can see he's charming. But Robert De Niro, I don't know—it like it was good, but I don't know. I didn't get wowed by him. My thought, if we're picking favorites. For me, it was Andy Garcia. Like, I thought he was riveting. He was a small, small role here, right? Like, he's the junior cop they pull out of training because he has a sense of truth and justice and not the normal spiel of I want to protect and serve and memorized Chicago P.D. thing because they can trust him. But I thought he rocked. I don't know. Like, as wry as, like, life is hard, but I'm here to have fun and take down baddies. I dug his role.

Steve: I would agree with you. I totally agree with you on Andy Garcia. In fact, I probably should have clarified that a little bit. I actually feel like he was the best actor, but I guess I enjoyed the performance of Robert De Niro as Al Capone. I mean, you know what I mean? I just enjoyed it because, like, you know, he was really into it. Not that Andy Garcia wasn't, but I just felt like there was more to enjoy about it. Whereas with Andy Garcia, it's like, OK, you know what? Now that I can believe, but Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? 

Mike: Here's my theory, because I did not—on the first watch when we were going to do this months ago, to pull behind the curtain for the listeners, it's been a couple of times of trying to do the show. I was like, what is this cheesy BS? Why? Why is it so lauded? And then watching it again a couple of months later, and I had time to sit with all of it, this feels like Mamet and De Palma went, what if we made back a 1940s-style movie? It feels like the people who are big and scenery chewing, the plot points, the over-the-topness of all of it feels so old school to me in a way that I felt very charming, if it's intentional. And that's why Andy Garcia sticks out. I think he crushed it, but he is modern acting. He's acting like a good actor in the modern world would, and everybody else is just going huge in the studio-era-system style acting. That's what I've drilled it down to. And if that doesn't work for you, that doesn't work for you. But I think that's what everybody's going for here.

Catherine: OK. That makes a little more sense to me, I guess.

Steve: Well, and Mike, in your movie expertise, is that really a thing? Because if you recall, I had a similar comment about Moonstruck. Now that was more of the '80s. But has there been a shift to more like reality as far as how an actor portrays it in more modern times? I just assumed that that's always what a movie's going for. But maybe not. 

Mike: No, and especially, so this is also the '80s. This is '87, but it feels like the kind of movie that came out in the time of The Untouchables, not just because the costuming. There's a different kind of rhythm and story and acting style. Like Humphrey Bogart, amazing actor, isn't trying to do the same thing like that Oscar Isaac is doing. And I hope I pissed a bunch of people off for daring to besmirch Humphrey Bogart's good name. But like I love Casablanca. But they are big and it's epic and it's sweeping. And there's a minimalism that I think exists more often now in movies. I'm painting with the broadest of strokes here, but I think overall those are the beats. Like, I love The Philadelphia Story, but it's a big gassy movie and everybody is shooting for the top of the cheap seats at all times in that. There's not a subtle performance. 

Steve: Nick Rekonski is wringing his hands right now, Mike.

Mike: Now that Nick's been on the show, everything I'm saying is just to get under his skin. But I also truly believe everything I just said. 

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Mike: I did want to talk about—so we're talking about performances, so Costner versus Capone. So Capone runs away with this. Well, what is Costner not doing, or what is he doing that's bugging you guys here? 

Steve: I feel like I gotta hold back, Catherine.

Catherine: No, let's hear it. 

Steve: Nobody would react to the way that he reacts. You know, you think about like when the accountant got killed. You think about that whole interaction and the train fight scene and just this like just the staring, not taking any action, just like looking at like what was—I mean, nobody would possibly react that way. Even Sean Connery, who I still think, you know, the Oscar's total B.S., but even Sean Connery, it was plausible. Kevin Costner, no way. Absolutely no way. And I have a lot of Yellowstone fans, now, obviously going way modern. And I'm thinking myself, well, maybe he took acting classes in the 30-something years or whatever that it's been. Anyway, not believable.

Mike: That train station tension. I'm not going to put on Costner. I'm going to put on De Palma because it is just stretching the taffy out of this scene of him staring at people and be like, should I help this lady with her baby carriage? Should I not help this lady? Should I help this lady? Well, I do have my entire life's career and maybe I should help this lady? Like, that's not on him. I think he's doing what the scene's asking him for. That is the people behind the camera doing as many cutaway shots as they can back and forth between his face looking more and more distraught. 

Catherine: I guess that was my question is like, what was the direction for him for the entire film? Because it seemed like he was just trying to play as straight as possible. You know, and let the other people kind of be the stars, I guess. 

Mike: And I feel like if you're going with Costner, you're going to get a straight man. You're not going to get a lot of big, unless it's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, where he is bananas and should not be in that role. You know, controversial, I don't get it. I really don't get Costner. I think he's generally overrated. He's always fine, but like to me—do you guys know who Patrick Wilson is?

Catherine: The name sounds familiar. 

Catherine: He's one of the stars of The Conjuring. It's Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. He was in the Watchmen movie as Nite Owl. You'd recognize him, but people don't love him. I think he's a serviceable actor. He's never going to hurt your movie. He's always going to be fine. But people—there's not going to be butts in seats because of Patrick Wilson. And I think Kevin Costner is at that level or a little worse, but for some reason in the late '80s, early '90s, people went gaga over Costner. And I do not get it. 

Steve: Here's one other thing, Mike, and this is might be super nerdy trivia, but did this film originate a lot of movie clichés, like clutching the bloody document before he dies, the screaming while Netty screaming while he was like falling down, the the bad guy nailing somebody across the shot, or like the good guy nailing the bad guy across the room with a single shot, the solitary just felt it felt like this movie was full of them. 

Mike: I cannot answer for sure, but I think all of that is older. I'd put that in older noir-style tools, which again, I think is what it's hearkening back to. Yeah, '87 feels a little late for all that stuff. Maybe the saxophone because the '80s frickin' loved the saxophone as an instrument. 

Steve: They sure did. They sure did. And it was a bummer with the sax, which totally left me wanting for like background music. I really like the intro music, right? I mean, it was like, kind of like got you pumped, right? I mean, like, I was like, hey, this is going to be a great movie. Au contraire, it's not a great movie.

Mike: That's so funny. Yeah, I think with every watch I'm gonna like this more. But movies, it does something different for everybody. Let's transition into awards. Best accounting moment. Catherine, let's start with you.

Catherine: OK, so maybe just because it's funny when they're, Sean Connery and Kevin Costner, are on the bridge, and Kevin Costner asks, how did you know I'm a treasury guy? And I think Sean Connery says something to the effect of, he would one would not say one is that—I'm messing it up. Steve, you know what I'm talking about. 

Steve: No, no, exactly. Exactly. He seems like, well, who would say that? 

Mike: Right? Why would you lie about being a treasury? 

Steve: Yeah, exactly. 

Mike: He's not a real cop because he just turned his back on a guy. 

Steve: Yup.

Mike: Who said he had a gun. Steve, what's yours?

Steve: So for me, actually, and it's not it's not the untouchable accountant. It's actually Al Capone's bookkeeper who's on the stand at the very end who talks about, yes, Capone got, you know, $1.3 million in payments or something like that. Yes, I will translate the ledger for you. And this is going to sound geeky, but it brings together the marriage of the records and the accountant. And it takes those things together for it to sort of make sense to everybody else. In theory, financial reporting shouldn't be that way. The financial reporting should make sense because it's good enough as it is. But that was a moment where I felt like those two things kind of came together. 

Mike: Yeah, mine is close to that. I don't even know if this counts, but because it's by the ledger in the books, it's when they go in to switch the jury because they've realized the jury has been bribed. How he gets the judge over, the judge's name is also in the ledger of people have been bribed. Because, you know, you got to keep clear records of who owes what and who you paid off. But that'll bite you.

Steve: And it did. 

Catherine: So they had paper records at that time. What would happen, like could that happen with the modern accounting and ledger systems that we have today? 

Mike: You mean like tracking bribes and stuff?

Catherine: Yeah, because I'm just thinking, like, what if you had your second set of books and you set the permissions so that only you and your henchmen could see them. Would the authorities still be able to get to those private files?

Mike: There is subpoena power and...

Catherine: I see. I see.

Mike: I mean, the first hint is that, permissions it says me and my henchmen only. And you're like, if they have henchmen, that might be bad. 

Catherine: And then you're yeah. 

Steve: Who's this henchman user group? Bob, have you seen this before? I don't know who those people are. I think to the answer your question, Catherine, is definitely yes. And I don't actually think you need different permissions. You know, within any kind of modern ERP, you're going to have company codes where you have multiple companies like subsidiaries within those companies. You're going to have multiple departments or cost centers. I actually don't think it would be that difficult to be able to use that as a fairly sophisticated way for people to know where they're looking. OK, you know what, you got to use this company code or these combinations, plus these cost centers. Those are going to be the fake transactions. Probably in practice, those kind of things are hiding in plain sight would be my guess. 

Mike: Yeah. It feels like simultaneously things are more complex now and it's more global. But at the same time, there's like digital fingerprints on everything. There's more things to trace and track. I think crime is generally getting harder, which makes me wish I was around in the '40s. Oh, man, I could run some booze. I guess that's '20s. All right. Pound for pound performance. We kind of talked about this. So like we said, Connery did win best supporting actor. This might be one of those things where the the Oscars are like, ah you're older and we kind of kept forgetting to give you an Oscar early in your career. So here you go. 

Catherine: Now's our chance.

Steve: That has to be it. 

Mike: For me, you brought up Denzel Washington earlier. I'm not here to besmirch Training Day's good name. I just don't know if that is the movie that Denzel earned best actor for. 

Catherine: I agree. Yeah.

Mike: And so this feels kind of like it's for your whole career. We'll say it's for this. 

Catherine: Agree. 

Mike: But we talked about Andy Garcia. Is there anybody else who stood out as a good actor here?

Catherine: I'm going to stick with De Niro. 

Steve: Yeah, I think I would stick with Andy Garcia, pound for pound, just in terms of the acting. Although I enjoyed watching De Niro more than Andy Garcia, just because there a little more to enjoy about it. 

Mike: I want to give a shout out—she didn't have a lot to do in this movie because as many movies in the '80s or, in general, women don't have a lot to do. But Patricia Clarkson, she plays Eliot Ness' wife. Love her. She's an amazing actress. She can be super funny and normally can elevate a small role, and here she just had so little to do. 

Steve: Can we go back to just a point there about her? It wasn't until the end of this particular scene the second time watching it that I realized, oh, she must have just had a baby.

Mike: Yeah. 

Steve: I know that's kind of dumb, but the first time is like, who the crap is this—like what? Was she even pregnant? And then the second time is like, oh, OK. Because then, you know, Sean Connery asks him what the kid's name was. I think that's what's happening. So then, oh, OK. Well, he was a dad. Anyway, I struggled with that, and that was not her thing. That was like a director thing. Like what is going on here? 

Mike: Going on topography of the film. I think they were trying to show how time is passing, that this isn't like a week in these people's lives. It was just kind of muddy.

Steve: Well, they did a crappy job if I can just say so myself. 

Mike: All right. Our last award is best scene or worst scene. Steve, let's start with you. And I want you know, I demand a positive, but you can give me your worst scene, too.

Steve: Yeah. I feel like I'm so negative in these movies. It's always the accounting. You know what? I would go back to Andy Garcia, and I would go back to the very end where he shook his hand, and there was some tears and he's like, hey, I really appreciated this opportunity because I would imagine if this character existed in real life—I'm sure there were untouchables, but whether you have the same story as Andy Garcia in this movie that I don't know, but I felt like, hey, you know what? You picked me and you trusted me and I gave it everything I could. And this was an awesome thing that's going to define the rest of my life. But I really connect with that. That was one part of the movie where I was like, you know what? Yeah, I can connect with that. 

Mike: Nice. Catherine? 

Catherine: A best and worst scene might be the baby carriage one where they're on the stairs. Just because like visually, it's so awesome. But because I wasn't so engaged, I guess, in the film, it was also just kind of funny that it was happening in slow motion.

Steve: Did you notice that lady didn't even baby! She doesn't move. She's not crawling. She's not trying to get there as quick as she can. 

Mike: It was ludicrously tense. 

Catherine: But I wonder if when the movie came out, it was just like, oh, this scene is awesome. Because, you know, when the guy falls off the building? 

Mike: Yeah.

Catherine: That was also, I think at the time it probably looked like, oh, how did they get that shot? But now today it's like, all right, green screen.

Mike: That sequence is one of my worst because like to be in court going saying, I'm going to shoot you now. Oh, you tried to take my gun, but now you can't like all of that I thought was dumb. And they were like, well, we need a climax, but I want a real story, a real version of this, where it is in the climax is just like we did a lot of paperwork and math. For best scene, another Andy Garcia, his introduction, and where Connery gets under his skin enough by being racist about Italians that he pulls out a gun from his sweatsuit to point at these guys who are trying to hire him. All of that I love. All right. That is our Untouchables. Any final thoughts before I sign out of here?

Steve: Let's not watch it a third time.

Mike: OK. Let's not watch it a third time. Well, big thanks to you, Catherine, and you, Steve. Big thanks to you, dear listeners, for surfing along with us. This has been Off the Books presented by Workiva. Please subscribe, leave a review, tell your buddies if you like the show. Feel free to drop us a line if you love The Untouchables, or hated it and agree with us, at Surf's up and we'll see you on the next wave. 

Off the Books Season 4, Episode 12: Move Night: The Untouchables


29 minutes


Steve Soter, Catherine Tsai, Mike Gravagno

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