During the late seventies a paranoid streak began to emerge in Hollywood thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View, this trend has widely been linked to post-Watergate cynicism that was going on throughout the country. Nixon’s scandal had exposed the ability of the government and agencies like the CIA to secretly do all sorts of sinister things behind Kafka-esque webs of complication, secrecy, and intrigue. This trend seems to have re-emerged as of late in films like Syriana and Michael Clayton, partly because of the forceful nature of the Bush administration, but the main reason has been the behavior of corporations who now more than ever seem hell-bent not only on fair profits but outright world domination. There was plenty of evidence of just how powerful corporate institutions had gotten when The International began filming in the September of 2007; but the parallels of the world today seemed all the more prescient to the world of today by the time it reached theaters in the February of 2009, one month after names like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and AIG began to be fixtures in the nations headlines.
The antagonist at the center of the film is the fictional International Bank of Business and Credit, investigating them are an INTERPOL agent named Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and a Manhattan Assistant District Attorney named Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts). The bank is believed to be the financial institution of choice for organized crime, but it quickly seems that the extent of this bank’s corruption extends far beyond the mafia and into third world coups, first world assassinations, and the trade of advanced weapons to unsavory elements. Their investigation brings them to Berlin, Milan, New York, and even Turkey; all the while they encounter a conspiracy of massive proportions.
One of the biggest complaints about Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (another film that can claim to be part of the paranoid thriller’s resurgence) was that the story was labyrinthine to the point of incoherence. Gaghan’s answer to the criticism is that the film is supposed to be borderline impenetrable in order to reflect just how complex the issues at the center are in the real world, that no one person can comprehend “the system” in its entirety. There seems to be a similar notion at work here; the story is very hard to follow what with the alphabet soup of agencies and financial transactions that are in on the film’s central conspiracy, but this is deliberate. About two thirds of the way into the film a character asserts that the “difference between fact and fiction [is that] fiction needs to make sense.” I’m very fond of this line, it certainly conveys the frustration of trying to solve major problems caused in elaborate ways by astonishingly powerful forces, and this sentiment almost makes me want to forgive the script for all its convolutions.
The problem is that this doesn’t have anywhere near the authenticity of something like Syriana, I think it has the right spirit but the deal breaker is that the forces here are significantly more trigger-happy than they would be in the real world. There are two action sequences here that are real double edged swords, on one hand they seem out of place and unrealistic, but on the other hand they are very skillfully made and enjoyable as they occur. The first is an assassination scene which adds new life to the cliché of the sniper on the roof, the other is a very tense and well choreographed shootout in the famed Guggenheim Museum. Director Tom Tykwer clearly still has the eye for interesting stylistic decisions he had when he made Run Lola Run, but has matured from that effort and abandoned the kinetic overdrive that I think ultimately sunk that former effort. In fact these scenes are refreshingly slow and careful, they don’t overload the sound mix and they have effective pauses for tension. So the catch-22 of the film is that these two scenes are awesome and make the film worth watching on their own, but they are ultimately detrimental to the rest of the movie.
Ultimately, this is a movie that delivers pretty much exactly what I expected from it. It’s a well crafted, glossy thriller that isn’t wildly stupid even if it isn’t particularly insightful either. I didn’t think Clive Owen was particularly well cast as he lacks some of the practical rage the part needs, but he isn’t terrible either and the rest of the cast is pretty good. The film shoots in a number of interesting locales and in a bunch of architecturally interesting locations. I don’t think I would have recommended anyone see it for full price at a theater, but it’s pretty much perfect DVD rental material, just keep in mind that you’re renting an action flick and not a legitimately political thriller.
*** out of Four