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The West Wing
Interpol agent Lou Salinger and American DA Ellie Whitman are both on the trail of a bank that may be dealing in weapons systems. The only problem is, can they prove it without either dying or vanishing like everyone else who has tried to bring it down?
For some reason, The International has garnered almost no buzz. Its advertising campaign has been brief and less than high profile; its stars haven't been doing the talk show circuit.
You would have thought the subject matter alone (the bank as enemy number one) might have pulled in the crowds.
But maybe that's exactly the problem. In this economy, with everyone except the very richest hurting so badly, movie are doing well but movies that hit this close to home may not be where people want to spent what little entertainment cash their budget will allow.
The International is smart, scary, and utterly unjust; it paints a stark portrait of the world as a place where the rich make their own rules, and can only be brought down by their own greed, and then only by crossing the wrong opponents, not through our justice system.
In fact, the frustration felt by Interpol investigator Lou Salinger becomes ours; if we didn't feel impotent before the film, we learn to feel it along with him. Salinger has already destroyed one career in his quest for justice against a corrupt bank. Despite his allies in several countries and at many levels of government, it seems all he can do to grasp for a small crumb of information before his latest source meets an untimely end.
Watts and Owens are terrific in a script that is as smart as the agents they play. It's clear that nothing is off-limits for the opponents they face; ordering a murder is as easy for the bank's principals as ordering up a cappuccino.
This is a major globe-trotter of a story, from Germany to America to Italy. The scenery is gorgeous and humbling -- The International is not afraid to show both the size of the world and the narrowness of the interests that control just about everything behind the scenes.
Armin Mueller-Stahl (Eastern Promises, Shine) is brilliantly cast as former Communist Colonel Wilhelm Wexler, the bank's fixer and handler of one of its prize assets, an enigmatic hitman who may be the only weak link in a massive conspiracy.
But is it really a conspiracy, or just business as usual for a bank to collaborate with an African general to fund a coup, in the interest of future considerations? To become a major purchaser of cheap arms from China for resale to the Middle East? Is it corrupt, or just economic self-interest?
These are the questions The International asks, and while it is a satisfying story on a practical level, the net effect is very unsettling. While intelligence agencies get into pissing matches about jurisdiction and propriety, the forces behind the scenes are changing the rules to suit themselves. It just feels true, and makes the playing field into a very hostile place indeed for anyone without a billionaire's portfolio.
The powerful, this film says, can rewrite history at will. What chance to any of us little people have to make a difference?
I still wanted The International to go even further. While the bank in question, the fictitious IBBC, was unquestionably corrupt, I kept wanting some more general statement made on the widespread dishonesty in the banking and business worlds, and how conflicts are created to harness the debt they create and turn it into banking profits.
Salinger's boss touches on the more universal when he tells his obsessed agent, "The truth means responsibility; that's why everybody dreads it."
This is a very sobering film, although an entertaining one as well. It's like a James Bond film with greater societal implications and none of the pyrotechnic car chases and explosions. Don't imagine there aren't great scenes though; the massive shoot-out in the Guggenheim and the political rally in Italy are both outstanding sequences.
But the upshot is that we learn as Salinger does that the system is set up to deny real justice. The only way to get the bad guys is to hit them the only place it hurts - squarely in the finances.
The thugs wear Armani, and hold the world hostage. Only thugs can bring other thugs to justice, and we're left asking, is this the way it has always been and always will be?
The International has no answer.