The Accountant – film as a mirror of reality (no, not really…)

I wouldn’t ever have watched Ben Affleck’s film The Accountant…

…except that I thought it might provide some material for a blog post (given my self-imposed pace of a new 800-word update every five days, I’m always looking for material). After all, as has been observed in the past, accountants are only minimally represented in Hollywood cinema – and that’s even compared to lawyers and generic business types, let alone getaway drivers and prostitutes – and if they’re shown at all, they’re most likely to occupy the margins of the narrative (also, a high percentage of them utilize their skills for inappropriate purposes of one kind or another, not infrequently involving the Mafia). I’d been told that in this case, Affleck’s character is at the centre of things and that he gets to engage in some actual accounting talk, so I thought – well, that might be worth something.

Unfortunately, the real meaty accounting talk is confined to one brief scene where Affleck’s character Christian Woolf, a brilliant forensic investigator, summarizes the preliminary findings on his latest assignment, to investigate suspected embezzlement within the pre-IPO entity Living Robotics. In a torrent of exposition, Woolf analyzes the relationship of sales and EBITDA, picks out some suspicious patterns within supposedly random numbers, and identifies the primary channel of embezzlement, a bogus series of purchase invoices. Actual accountants will detect some rather lazy slips in this dialogue, including an apparent implication that capital expenditures would reduce profit, and some fuzziness about the relationship of cash flow and profit. Still, it’s hard not to be stirred by the notion that Woolf carries out all this analysis in just one day, a process that apparently involves going through fifteen “ledgers” (the movie seems to carry a somewhat old-fashioned, largely pre-computerized notion of accounting records, visually represented by how Wolff sets out all his work on the walls and windows of the conference room he’s occupying, rather than in (say) Excel).

Woolf isn’t allowed to complete his investigation, and indeed it becomes a matter of life and death (his, and that of a more junior accountant played by Anna Kendrick) that he shouldn’t. Woolf is better able (to put it mildly) than most accountants to navigate matters of life and death, because he’s superbly trained and conditioned, and has access to a lot of weaponry. This aspect of the film leads into a (to me anyway) bewildering amount of back story and surrounding mythology, encompassing numerous criminal involvements (yep, the Mafia show up here too) and secret identities, the weary reflections of a retiring treasury agent, a long-separated brother, a mysterious helper who communicates only by phone, and that’s not even all of it. To me the film feels largely cluttered and unilluminating, but at least it allows that an accountant might be defined by more than simply being an accountant, by multiple levels of involvement and impact.

And yet not entirely, in that Woolf has a high-functioning form of autism, and so finds it difficult to navigate through normal social interactions. The film might be regarded as a positive depiction of the condition, in that it plainly hasn’t held him back from major financial and professional achievement (one writer cited on Wikipedia sees the film as a project to “give autistic kids their own superhero,” something that it judges to have been achieved with “genuine sweetness.”). On the other hand, it entails that the character remains an outsider to a degree that’s a bit unusual for the protagonist of a major film – for instance, there’s never much of a hint of potential romance with Kendrick’s character, nor with anyone else – and the ending provides little sense that this will or can ever change.

So one might find in The Accountant elements of the accountant movie we need, rather submerged by the one we don’t. Although Woolf’s analytical prowess might make detailed engagement with numbers look passingly cool, it’s at the cost of creating a character who can barely summon up detailed engagement with anything else, least of all his own life, and certainly not ours. Christian Woolf, you might say, is a non-GAAP measure of a protagonist, bereft of adequate reconciliation to something we can properly recognize.

I remain unaware of any movie that deals even tangentially with IFRS, although it isn’t absurd to dream of one. I’m thinking now of how Whit Stillman’s Barcelona engaged diligently with the theory and practice of sales and marketing, and of how a filmmaker like Arnaud Desplechin relishes having his characters talk vibrantly and chaotically about philosophy and literature and medicine. At the intersection of such triumphs we might imagine a future drama (perhaps it ought to be French) about an accomplished but preoccupied IASB member. He or she would have some taxing emotional and intellectual entanglements, but would never pick up a gun. The film would contain big chunks of actual plausible standard-setter conversation. However well it turned out, such a project would likely earn less than 1% of the $150 million gross attributed to The Accountant, but this might only show what accountants paradoxically know better than anyone, that the raw numbers aren’t the only measure of underlying value….

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author

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