This page has been the subject of considerable controversy. Within hours of its publication, Lionsgate, acting through the Morganelli Group, issued the first of what proved to be a series of Takedown Notices. The intention, in my opinion, was unlawfully to chill my freedom of speech. But to keep the peace while the matter was being resolved, all images were removed from the page. Now that the matter has been resolved, I have restored a copy of the poster which, in my opinion, always was protected as fair use, i.e. it was used in the context of a non-commercial critical commentary of the film for which it serves as poster art. Use for this purpose does not compete with the purposes of the original artwork, namely the creator providing graphic design services, and in turn the marketing of the promoted item. I have also restored the three still photographs from the film.
As the matter proceeded, I offered my opinion at Lionsgate and the use of DMCA notices, Lionsgate continues its bad faith campaign over the review of Arbitrage, and Lionsgate continues its bad faith sequence of DMCA notices.
May 1st 2013 brings the news that the final URL blighted by Lionsgate (in fact by one of Lionsgate’s agents) has now been reinstated. Lionsgate’s malicious reaction to this review has produced four months of disruption. Hopefully, this is an end of the matter. Lionsgate’s malicious campaign now apparently defeated
For you to understand my reaction to Arbitrage (2012), I have to go back in time to a favourite of mine. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) had two villains played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford. These were two of the more likeable and bankable of stars. The casting predisposed the audience to sympathise with them as criminals. On its own, this would not have been enough, so the script set out to make them less disagreeable. First, they might rob banks and steal from trains, but they never killed anyone. Second, they always threatened to give up the life of crime for the love of a good woman. Finally, whatever they did, they did with a laugh and a smile. We wanted them to be able to retire, put down their guns and put up their feet without fear of pursuit. Even now the ambiguity of the ending remains a classic. We know it’s almost certainly death but they lived in hope. Let’s now switch to a different type of film. In Margin Call (2011) we have an intelligent on-screen debate about the morality of selling a financial product you believe to be worthless. Kevin Spacey is the ethical touchstone. Jeremy Irons is the pragmatist who rightly points out no-one has to buy what’s on offer. The value of the film lies in the quality of the debate. It neither glorifies greed nor exonerates dishonesty. It simply shows how big money decisions are taken. As an aside, neither Spacey nor Irons have the same charisma as Newman and Redford, nor are there any jokes to leaven the dough.
So what are we to make of a film that casts Richard Gere in the leading role of Robert Miller? As something of a sex symbol when younger, he still has quite a high swoon factor. In 1999, he was People magazine’s “sexiest man alive”. Not bad for a fifty-year old. Now into his sixties, he still manages to command the screen with that easy smile. This time around, he’s playing the part of a rogue with almost no apparent redeeming features. One of his deals has come unstuck so, to cover up his losses, he’s cooking the books and trying to make a quick sale before the losses are discovered — a part of the sale price will fill in the hole in the accounts and leave all the investors protected. Better still, all the staff of the investment firm will stay in work (including his son and daughter). I suppose this makes him slightly better than Bernie Madoff who could not begin to pay people back, but even with the most benign interpretation of his behavior, his lawyer is advising him he will spend a not inconsiderable number of years in jail if he can’t make the sale. Of course, the sale depends on a clean auditing report and no-one internally noticing and blowing the whistle. There’s a considerable circle of friends and business associates who are conspiring with him.
As the ultimately selfish male, he’s also a serial adulterer. He may do everything in his power to maintain the illusion of a perfect marriage, but he and his wife played by Susan Sarandon acknowledge it as a sham. Like almost everything in his life, he does enough to hide his dishonesty from those who would give him away. All the others are as bad or worse than him and so would never give him away. In the midst of all this, he kills his current mistress when he falls asleep at the wheel of her car. He calls a young man out to drive him home. Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker) has a conviction and will go to jail if he admits helping our hero flee the scene. This gives Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) an opening. If he can do a deal with Jimmy, he can nail our “hero”. All this is designed to make us care. Indeed, I believe the intention of Nicholas Jarecki who both wrote the script and directed, is to have us cheering Richard Gere on in his desperate attempts to push through the sale and avoid detection as a killer. Personally, I find this rather offensive. I don’t mind a film-maker showing us a criminal as anti-hero in a relatively neutral or, more reasonably, a disapproving way. But I do object when, from the outset, the point of the film is to show an unpleasant fraudster get away with a homicide.
So even though some elements of the film do show some sense of realism, I left the cinema feeling I had just been exposed to something with a bad smell. Keeping this in perspective, every city in the world has people like this who use their position in society to get away with their crimes. Sadly, those with power have a high degree of immunity from prosecution. In cinema terms, I’m not advocating a return to the bad old days of the Hays Code in which scripts and productions were sanitised. But just as I question Hollywood’s glorification of gun ownership, showing the use of pistols and rifles in both defence and offence, I think any film encouraging sympathy for career criminals is dangerous. Sending the message you can buy your way out of trouble if you have enough money is not what we want to be telling young audiences. At some point, law enforcement should be allowed to prevail or at least to win a partial victory. So, if you do not share my code of ethics, you may well find Arbitrage the best possible way to show the lives of the bankers and investment managers who earn all these obscene bonuses on Wall Street and in the City of London.