Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage, one of the most interesting offerings from Hollywood in recent months, has been widely reviewed and praised but its essential political significance has been missed. The film has already been reviewed in these columns and one more review makes no sense. The following is therefore an attempt to explain why it is political and how its statement is disguised as family drama. The first factor that makes it highly political is that it is about a hedge-fund tycoon and investment bankers have become highly controversial after the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008, as a result of which a huge number of people were ruined. Their misdoings can be broadly held as responsible for the economic ills of the western world today but rather than being punished, they were bailed out by the US government and they continue to be at large, more prosperous than ever and occupy positions of great influence. An exhaustive account of the doings of investment bankers can be found in Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job (2010).
The story of Arbitrage is in two separate strands. In the first one Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is a successful New York hedge-fund manager who, unknown to most of those around him, is in deep financial trouble. He has been doctoring the accounts in his company because of a bad investment in Russia and he is trying to sell off his company to a Manhattan bank. Some of his employees have connived with him and a crucial audit clearance finally comes. But the biggest crisis for him breaks when his daughter Brooke (Brit Marling), who works for him, discovers strange entries in the books which she cannot account for.
The second strand in Arbitrage deals with Robert Miller’s family and family life. On the surface he is a doting husband and father who has been living lavishly and encouraging his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) to give freely to charity because there are those ‘less fortunate than they are’. On the side, however, he has a secret mistress. This is a French woman Julie Cote who is running an art galley in which Miller has invested. Julie is making emotional demands on him and he is unable to meet them, especially because of the financial crisis he is facing. One night when he is driving with her in her car he has an accident and Julie is killed. Miller is in a quandary because the process undertaken to sell his company is reaching fruition and the smallest scandal could upset it. What he does therefore is to get an ex-con, a young African-American wanting to go straight named Jimmy Grant (Nate Miller), to pick him up and drive him home. He gives Grant instructions on how to account for his absence to his girl. He rings Grant from a public phone booth because his own mobile will be traced if he uses it near the scene of the accident. Miller has been slightly injured but, being unable to account for it, hides his pain when he returns home. He also pretends to the drowsy Ellen that he just got up to get some ice cream.
Basically, the film is centered on the three problems that Miller needs to resolve: ensure that the sale of his business comes through in time, keep himself out of trouble for the accidental death of his mistress and rescue Jimmy Grant from the police – because they suspect Miller’s involvement and want to get at him through Grant. What Grant stands to receive unless he fixes these problems is a twenty year jail sentence. Rather than relate the rest of the story, however, it may be more pertinent to understand how the film functions as a political statement.
In the first place, the methods of the film are broadly ‘allegorical’. Arbitrage does not talk about the actual crisis of 2008 but invokes the acknowledged ways of investment bankers in the last decade – rely on huge irregularities to rake in money but also cook up the accounts/reports in such an intricate and complicated way that they cannot be indicted for fraud. Miller is certain that if he gets an audit clearance and the sale goes through, the buyer will be unable to revoke the deal. The point here is that for the film to work as an allegory there should be a rough correspondence between its story and the political events it is representing. Since investment bankers got away unscathed after 2008 and were allowed to keep their money, Miller should also get away. Since investment bankers have not had a change of heart and redeemed themselves morally, neither can Robert Miller feel remorse or face retribution. Still, the laws of fiction for cinema like this demand that the film cannot end ‘happily’ with a crook getting to keep his ill-gotten money – although the crooked investment bankers in the US did get away. What the film does here – to force an appropriate moral resolution – is to introduce the motif of Miller’s marital infidelity.
The family in as sacred in American cinema as the mother was in the Hindi cinema of an earlier period. In Hindi films like Awaara (1951), Mother India (1956) and Deewar (1975) love of the mother allegorizes love of the Nation and when the mother punishes her son in the latter two films, it is as if the Nation itself is punishing its sons for their wrong doings. Since, in films from Hollywood, good Americans need to win the trust of their families through their deeds, one could say that family life is an ideal closely associated with America, i.e. with the American Nation. When Robert Miller is unfaithful to his wife, therefore, he has not only been behaving wrongly through his financial dealings but has also been ‘un-American’ through his infidelity. It does not require too much perspicacity to see that the two strands in Arbitrage are not linked but have been brought together artificially. My argument is that they have been brought together to facilitate a moral judgment on Miller. Since Miller’s financial doings are legally admissible – as those of corporates like Goldman Sachs were found to be – he cannot be damned on their account. But he can be damned in another way – which is to show the marked contempt with which his daughter regards him at the moment of his greatest public triumph. He may have been successful but he cannot be happy because he has broken a cherished American rule. Part of the film’s intelligence lies also in its blurring the line between his family’s disapproval of his adultery and his daughter’s disapproval of his financial dealings. What ‘America’ (in the shape of his family) is disapproving and holding in contempt for could equally well be the financial misdoings from which he has been let off. If the law let off investment bankers and hedge-fund managers who ruined so many people in 2008, America still judges them as scoundrels, is the political consolation that Arbitrage offers.