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Arbitrage: Billionaire battles increasing odds in morally ambivalent thriller

By Aniruddha Basu • Published on September 17, 2012

[T] here is without doubt some vicarious pleasure to be had in seeing the rich and mighty stumble. Especially in these tough times when jobs are fast becoming a precious commodity and inflation and high taxes play havoc with household budgets the world over. Against this backdrop getting to see almighty tycoons such as Lehman Brothers honcho Richard Fuld or our very own Vijay Mallya fall from grace is a fascinating spectacle.

Arbitrage, the new Wall Street thriller starring Richard Gere as a troubled billionaire trying to save his empire, cashes in on the media frenzy surrounding the scam trails left by Wall Street in the wake of the global financial crisis. As financial dramas go this one is above average lifted not just by its charismatic leading man, but also by director Nicholas Jarecki’s astute display of the cut-throat dealmaking in high circles. (It can be called an Insider’s view. Both his parents are well known traders).

Gere stars as Robert Miller, a respected billionaire, who often makes it to the cover of Forbes and CNBC. He owns a well known hedge fund and is a father figure not just to his daughter Brooke –(the smart young lady is the CFO of his firm), but to employees and investors in general. However, behind the shiny facade of fame and fortune, lies a cornered man. What no-one, not even his daughter, knows is that Miller is on the verge of bankruptcy after a costly bet on a Russian copper mine goes wrong. Neck deep in debt, he has concealed his losses and is desperately trying to sell his company to a bank, repay the loans and come out clean before the scam blows in his face; but his prospective bidder seems to be having second thoughts. Parallels abound with both ponzi scheme operator Bernard Madoff and Jamie Dimon, the JP Morgan CEO whose firm suffered billions of dollars in trading losses.

Matters are made far worse when his mistress accidentally dies in a car accident (with Miller on the wheel), which he subsequently tries to cover up by enlisting the help of his ex-chaueffer’s son, a poor but proud black man. Needless to say things don’t go according to plan. Before long Miller is trying to stay out of jail by avoiding the attentions of a very persistent cop (Tim Roth, excellent), trying to keep investors at bay and his family in the dark. Not exactly a enviable situation for a much loved financial patriach.

A more conventional drama would have painted the character in black and white, giving us enough reason to despise this egoistical, womanising fraud who also happens to be ultra-wealthy. Not so with these filmakers however. They take the somewhat risky approach of being on the bad guy’s side .In the process, Jarecki lends the film a delightful moral ambiguity.

A contrasts from, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s popular thriller’s such as North by North West where the hero was an innocent, even noble man framed by circumstances to appear guilty.

Where both Gere and director succeed is in making Miller a utterly believable character- not an all out financial predator like Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, but a flawed but likeable man who has made some pretty big mistakes. But Miller is no pushover, evident from the way in which he handles Tim Roth’s nosy detective. And in the movie’s best scene, he plays hard ball with the elusive owner of the bank that is supposed to acquire his firm. Gere deftly masks his desperation by getting on the offensive and opting to back out of the deal. The strategy works despite the odds.

What also works well is how director Jarecki makes the audience like and even sympathise with Miller despite the fact that the man is an obvious rogue. Much tension is generated from the possibility that despite his best manevoures, Miller may not be able to escape the dock—for his multiple offfences that would mean a lifetime in prison. We flinch as the noose around his neck tightens, as he fights increasingly long odds. The credit for this must go to Gere who invests in his character just the right glimmer of humanity (notice the touching scene between him and his dead mistresses’ mother). He may be a rogue but he is not a villian.

The film seductively captures upscale Manhattan with soft lighting capturing the well dressed people who populate its art galleries, elegant restaurants and lavish apartments. It also throws up some tricky questions. Is justice equal for the rich and the disprivelaged? Does a noble end justify the means? Will the rich continue to perpetrate scams and rule the world with a charm offensive? Like life itself, there are no easy answers.

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