Arbitrage the Movie With a Tip of the Hat to Machiavelli, the Philosopher

09/24/2012 02:57 pm ET | Updated Nov 24, 2012
  • Tom Alderman Media, Presentation and Speech trainer, speech writer and founder of MediaPrep

If you're an older adult who keeps complaining that "They're just not making movies for us anymore," they are and you'll find one in the extremely thought-provoking, gem of a movie, Arbitrage, with Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth and Nate Parker, written and directed by first-time filmmaker, Nicholas Jarecki. Reviews have been favorable as in, "... a taut, alluring suspense" - which is it is, and "...morally ambivilent," which it is not. Morally FLEXIBLE is more like it. And that brings us to Machiavelli.

It's not often a movie expresses the principles of the 15th century's political beastie-boy, Niccolo Machiavelli. You remember Machiavelli, every dictator's favorite thinker. Arbitrage deals with the writer's 'dirty hand' theory - plainly put: the ends justify the means.

First the word 'arbitrage:' it's a financial term meaning the purchase of currencies, securities, or commodities in one market for immediate resale in others in order to profit from unequal prices. For people like me, this is blah, blah, blah. The movie, Arbitrage, is about a hedge fund manager who fraudulently manipulates his clients' funds during the day and beds his mistress at night. The nub: he's despicable.

Without spoiling the plot, there's an accident filmmakers call the inciting incident that triggers the rest of the movie. With a multi-million-dollar deal pending, every aspect of Gere's life starts to unravel. By most standards, the man is evil. But thanks to a nuanced script and a brilliantly sympathetic performance by Gere, the movie goes beyond good and evil. As a viewer, here's the surprising thing: you can't help sympathizing with this reprobate. Some viewers might even find themselves rooting for the guy to pull off all his deceits. In fact, all the major characters in Arbitrage - Gere, his wife and the cop who's eager to nail him- all make immorral decisions based on their own selfish interests.

Which brings us back to Machiavelli's dirty hands principle: we sometimes find ourselves in situations where sometimes it's right to do wrong. Military leaders get their hands dirty by torturing a suspected terrorist in order to prevent the likely killing of innocent people. This is the kind of moral dilemma Gere and the audience face in Arbitrage.

What makes this new movie so very appealing is that it dramatically reminds us the conduct code we're all taught in school and in Disney movies is more aspirational than reality. Not every decision we will make in life will stand up to those earnest values. This is a morality tale, well told, where morality actually loses and selfish wins- and in Arbitrage, the movie, that's not a bad ending at all.