One thing’s clear this awards season — the U.S.’s economic climate has had an impact on movie villains and bigscreen protagonists. Blame it on the 2008 worldwide financial meltdown, the BP oil spill, Ponzi scheme operator Bernie Madoff or the explosion of natural gas drilling in the U.S., but there is no denying that there has been an increase in the number of films focused on the ethical dilemmas faced by highly educated men in suits.

Billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is guilty of fraud, infidelity and murder, but he walks free of consequence in a system fueled by money in writer-director Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage.”

“I started working on the script right when the financial crisis was happening, so the hedge-fund magnates were dominating the headlines,” says Jarecki. “It seemed like a great world to investigate.”

On paper, Miller is clearly a monster, responsible not only for massive-scale white-collar crime, but also for an innocent woman’s death. Every move he makes to protect himself puts the livelihood of others in jeopardy, yet audiences can’t help but root for the billionaire.

“I love the anti-hero,” says Jarecki. “You see him in ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ ‘The Godfather,’ etc. The (protagonist) is to the outside world a villain but you are behind him or her because you see their humanity. You see the conflict they have within themselves. It’s something that every human being, rich or poor, can relate to because we all face moral questions everyday in our life. So I think that is why audiences seem to connect with Miller.”

“This was a complicated and challenging role,” Gere said in a statement. “It’s nice to have the HFPA acknowledge the performance and for me to share the nomination with such brilliant actors.”

Gere is one of several actors portraying rich businessmen facing a moral dilemma this awards season. There was also Jack Black who was nominated for “Bernie” while Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant) is the CEO of a nuclear facility that owns an unstable nuclear reactor he hopes will implode due to his alliance with the oil companies in “Cloud Atlas.”

But Annete Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia U., says this year’s wave of films about the dubious practices of corporate businessman in favor of the morally conscious is nothing new.

“This is not the first era in which American movies champion the ‘little guy’ at the expense of the corporate villain. If you go back to the films of Frank Capra for example, you’ll see the same pattern. Audiences identify with the disenfranchised individual who takes on the indifferent, rich ‘suits.’ ”

Golden Globes Countdown 2013
Making history less of a lesson | Corporate baddies suit up this season | Gervasi’s rock heart opened to ‘Hitchcock’ | More thesps tapped for glory on both silver, smallscreens | Globes embrace the next big things