Criminally Overlooked: “The International”

June 7, 2009

200px-The_International_posterTom Tykwer’s The International was dumped into American movie theaters in the movie doldrums of February, billed as a dank, international thriller about a murderous bank, and released at time when the financial sector’s self-immolation had thrown us into the worst recession in living memory. No wonder people skipped it and saw My Bloody Valentine instead. It’s too bad, because The International has  a lot to recommend, not the least of which is its view of international finance which uses the dark arts of money and debt to grow fat. Just as The Dark Knight may one day be used a lesson of what America went through in the wake of 9/11, The International may one day serve as a useful autopsy of what brought us to this point in our financial history.

I think most critics missed the point of The International, or at least missed it merits. With the exception of Stephanie Zacharek’s review in Salon, critics seized upon the movie’s outlandish paranoia over financial institutions, and the cardboard characters played by capable actors as liabilities justifying its dismissal. When I watch The International, I see a throwback to the political-paranoia movies of the 1970s—Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, The Conversation. Just as those films, released in the wake of Watergate and the seemingly endless, uncontrollable war in Vietnam, saw the government as a malevolent entity beyond accountability, so too does The International see the same characteristics in banking. Indeed, the bank in the movie, The International Bank of Business and Credit, was loosely modeled after the real Bank of Credit and Commerce International. It’s easy to be derisive of the notion of an omnipotent bank  when the major financial institutions are groveling before Congress, begging for a financial lifeline, but when you consider what brought them to this state, you see much of the same hubris and worldview espoused by the financial hyenas in The International.

Clive Owen plays Interpol agent Louis Salinger who, along with Manhattan ADA Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) has been building a case against the IBBC for money-laundering, arms trafficking and murder. And, true to its ‘70s worldview, every step along the way they’ve been roadblocked. As the movie gets going, the murder of an IBBC executive ready to flip yields an unintended boon: the IBBC is working an arms deal to supply guidance technology for Silkworm missiles to various terrorists groups in the Middle East and Africa. They are heavily leveraged and more ruthless than ever—bordering on the reckless. Salinger and Whitman trot the globe from Germany to New York to Italy, dealing with cops and lawyers—some corrupt, some consummate professionals—to auger in on their last, best shot at taking down the IBBC.

Several critics found fault with the pace of the film, suggesting that the director of the hyper-kinetic Run, Lola, Run had been upstaged by the dead-sprint style of the Bourne trilogy. As if Tykwer had only that one trick up his directoral sleeve. Let me go on record as stating that this flat-out fucking ridiculous. The International isn’t supposed to traffic in adrenaline, but in dread. And to that end Tykwer creates a vivid world of free-floating paranoia and violence. The locations—whether its Berlin or Luxemburg or Manhattan—are overcast and rain-drenched, populated by overcoat-wrapped denizens running from the elements. These contrast with the IBBC offices, which are glass and steel and concrete and sterile as an operating room. Their executives are meticulously dressed and coiffed as if they’ve stepped out of a European GQ magazine. This is the world of The International—if you’re not a part of the IBBC, you are out in the cold.

The movie’s great action set-piece, a submachine gun battle in the Guggenheim, hits with the impact of a concussion grenade, but then extends and builds as masterfully as the great shootout in Heat (less authentic gunplay, though) until it resembles something like a bullet-ravaged purgatory. This is the world inside the IBBC made real. For the ruthlessness of the IBBC bankers is extended to one another as well as everyone else. When the IBBC’s resident “fixer” (the always-imposing Armin Mueller-Stahl—and, side note, this guy has to be the scariest grandpa in the world) is revealed as former Stasi it seems to make perfect sense.

But the engine that drives my high regard for The International is a scene between Whitman and Salinger and an Italian magnate-turned-political candidate. He explains the true agenda of the IBBC: not simply to promote conflict, but to become rich off the debt caused by conflict. “This is the very essence of the banking industry: To make us all—whether we are nations or individuals—slaves to debt.”  I think there are a lot of homeowners that would probably agree with that statement.

The film’s climax moves the characters—good and bad—away from the rain-slicked streets and glass towers of the rest of the film, and to picturesque Istanbul. There, below endless azure skies and against a breathtakingly beautiful backdrop of the crazed architecture of the old city, Twyker sets his final confrontation. Both the evil IBBC CEO (Ulrich Thomsen) and Salinger find themselves someplace else. Someplace the bank doesn’t know and hadn’t planned on.

The International isn’t great and certainly isn’t flawless, but it’s never dull and always thought-provoking. It deserves better than it got, and hopefully, now that it’s been released on DVD and iTunes, it’ll get the audience it deserves.


  1. As far as I’m concerned, this review could have been distilled down to two words.

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