The International (2009)
Dir. Tom Tykwer
Starring Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl
I had sort of wanted to go see THE INTERNATIONAL when it was in theaters, but the poor word-of-mouth kind of bummed me out and I never did get out to do it. Then, when it came out on video I tried to download it, but --unbelievably-- couldn't find a torrent. I mean, there are almost a dozen torrents for PUMPKINHEAD 4: BLOOD FEUD, for fuck's sake. How disappointing does a film have to be before no one is even gonna go through the effort of stealing it?
I had another reason to be trepidacious about this one: It's directed by Tom Tykwer. You remember, Tom Tykwer, the guy who made the visionary, kinetic modern masterpiece RUN LOLA RUN, and apparently expended all his energy on that one because he then made a whole series of pretentious arty snoozefests like WINTER SLEEPERS (apparently he actually made this before LOLA, it just came out in America afterwords and I assumed it was a follow-up) PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR, and HEAVEN. I was excited going into every one of those films and they ended up just boring the piss out of me, even when I could acknowledge the thought and artistry which obviously went into them. I'd forgotten that he recently directed the odd but excellent PERFUME, so the thought of him doing a 70's style paranoid thriller just seemed so awesome that I was certain he would bungle it into some kind of boring metaphor art project.
Turns out no, this one actually delivers. It's not the stylistic follow-up to LOLA that everyone would like to see, but it is an extremely classy and deftly made old-fashioned thriller about a topic which is both old-fashioned and torn from today's headlines: evil bankers (not so fast Mel Gibson, they're British and German).
Clive Owen plays an Ex-Scotland Yard INTERPOL guy who is has been trying for years to prove maleficent behavior on the part of the IBBC, a conglomerated European bank which barely bothers to hide their evil intent. They go about murdering one person after another, knowing they're entirely safe behind a thick wall of intragovernmental bureaucracy and callous extralegal skullduggery. And here's the cool part: they're absolutely right. They hold every ounce of power in this relationship. They're almost completely unconcerned that Owen's Louis Salinger is on their trail, because there's not a single god damn thing he can do about it. Every bit of evidence he collects will be undermined, every potential ally will be scared off, every good intention will be recontextualized as fanatical paranoia. Who is the world going to believe, scruffy, wild-eyed Clive Owen with his wild theories about bank assassins, or smooth-talking bank lawyer Michael White (Patrick Baladi) who represent the soothing forces of accepted reality.?
I never cease to be amazed how hostile middle America is to the idea that there are powerful forces in the world working in secret on things which will make them rich and make the world a worse place. I mean, I'm not a crazy person. I don't see much evidence to suggest that there's a secret society working to perpetuate Jesus' bloodline into a New World Order. On the other hand, both Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr, killed within a five year span, all by mentally unstable lone nuts for basically no reason? That doesn't sound suspicious to anyone? I mean, I feel crazy just saying it, but folks, if that shit doesn't set your alarm bells ringing, what in fuck's name is wrong with the world? Which is not to start claiming that I have secret proof that there was a third shooter at the grassy knoll, or that Dick Cheney shot a missile at the pentagon or whatever. I don't know. But I'll be damned if there aren't some things out there that seem mighty suspicious. With a conspiracy which is properly successful, you can't prove it. And even if you could, people don't want to believe it. Give them any possible way out, and they'll choose a comforting fiction. Some things just challenge people's perception of their world too much for them to allow.
It's not that all conspiracies are true (oh god, no.) It's that Americans are hostile to the very notion of conspiracies. Despite plenty of indisputable historical evidence of some fucking crazy ass shit, Americans reject the very notion of such activities as suspect. And that's after the Gunpowder Plot, CIA's MK-ULTRA experiments, the Tuskegee experiments, COINTELPRO, The General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, Iran-Contra, Operation Ajax, and of course the true events which obviously are referenced in the film, the murder of Italian banker Roberto Calvi in 1982 and the assassination of dissident writer Georgi Markov in 1978 just to name a very few in which it's basically impossible to argue against a conspiracy. Most of these conspiracies were exposed only when the perpetrator were either caught red-handed or achieved their desired aims and felt no need to continue in secret.
It's not faith in the system that keeps people from believing, I think, but rather fear of what it might mean if we really started wondering about what forces are conspiring against us. And so Americans violently resist such notions and marginalize even the vaguest suggestion of such things. The American public does half the work of conspirators for them! We create a spiral of silence which ensures that it's the people who ask hard questions that will suffer, not the people they're asking those questions about. Hell, the argument has always been that keeping secrets between a group of people is too hard for conspiracies to be plausible. But if everyone's implicated and you keep it simple enough, exposing conspiracies is such a difficult task it's hard to believe there aren't more of them. Or maybe there are. I guess the point is that if they're done well you can have all the suspicions you want, and in the end it's just you that will seem crazy.
The genius of this film is that it successfully presents the enormity of the odds stacked against poor Clive Owen. The deeper he goes and the more outlandish the conspiracy gets, the more obvious it becomes that no one is ever going to believe it. The Sisyphean nature of his task becomes more and more obvious as his enemies get bolder and bolder. They shoot up the goddam Guggenheim and get away with it! There are bodies and machine gun rounds blanketing one of America's most famous and celebrated institutions, but one look from Owen and you realize that if he claims this is the work of a conspiracy of international banking assassins, he'll be the one locked up.
This is a powerful feeling to evoke in this crazy modern time. The system has gotten so out of control that it's gone beyond the bounds of what most people allow themselves to believe is possible. People violently defend the status quo because believing the alternative is just too horrific. The forces stacked against us are so overwhelming and so utterly devoted to furthering their own ends that stopping them is basically an absurd idea. Often, stopping them would essentially entail destroying most of the basic institutions of our government and economy. They have us at gunpoint -- if we fuck with them, they can completely destroy us and make it look like it was our fault all along. Tykwer emphasizes this point with his fixation on juxtaposing tiny humans with monolithic monuments to modernist architecture. Everything in the film is bordered by clean, neat lines and grids, and menaced by towering modernist citadels. They lurk above the horizon like predacious giants; like tombstones to ideals that don't yet know they're already dead. The Guggenheim itself, with its spiraling minimalism and austere spaciousness, is the perfect metaphor for the escalating violence against humanity wrought by the faceless powers represented by this disaffected monument to grandiosity.
All that works beautifully, and Tykwer drives the narrative along at a tense, kinetic clip, pausing for impeccably executed setpieces (of which the Guggenheim shootout is the most spectacular). That sequence in particular is so immaculately constructed in terms of acting, story, cinematography, editing, and score that it will probably be considered a classic film sequence somewhere down the line. The acting is excellent, even if both Owen and a needless Naomi Watts both fall a little short of being fully realized characters. So why didn't people like this thing?
The problem, it turns out, is that the film's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Tykwer masterfully convinces you of the hopelessness of the situation he's created, but then finds himself painted into a corner. He's so expertly crafted an impossible situation that there doesn't seem to be any good way out. In order to explain the unsatisfying result, I'm going to have to describe the conclusion, so the next bit is gonna be in my ever-popular Ulta-3-D- SPOIL-O-VISION!
So, after this long multinational chase to get evidence to bring down the bank, our heroes are left with exactly fuck all. An accusation as extraordinary as they're attempting to make is going to require extraordinary evidence to move on, and the people working against them are simply too good at obfuscating and confusing the picture to leave extraordinary evidence. Oh sure, they've got plenty of suspicious connections, plenty of innuendo, coincidences, odd happenings, evidence which contradicts the official explanations, and even a guy who's willing to go on record. But it's not ever going to be enough. The bank will be able to control their message, change the facts, and turn the whole thing into an incomprehensible jumble of international court hearings which will ultimately lead to some minor fine and no admission of guilt. Owen and Watts will die in some suspicious way which can't quite be proved to be the result of anything except happenstance, nothing will get any better, and anyone who thinks their deaths look like foul play will face instant ridicule and derision as a conspiracy nut.
With this setup, the director has two choices. Option A: Go the cynical route, follow the obvious logic of the film and aptly demonstrate that they're right, there's not a single damn thing you can do to make anything any better. Or, option B: Say fuck it and go for the Hollywood ending where somehow against all odds they succeed in bringing the bastards down, likely in a hail of gunfire in a secret volcano lair.
What Tykwer unwisely chooses to do is go with option C: Have Owen admit the system is untenable and take matters into his own hands, but then only do an OK job of it. Basically, Owen goes rogue and pits the mafia against the bank, so they send a dumpy middle aged guy to sort of easily shoot two of the bank's managers who for some reason don't have body guards or cell phones, and then that's it. So it kind of undermines the whole paranoia thing most of the film does so well, but also isn't a big enough win to give you the kind of payoff you'd want from an ending this unlikely. It's well put together just like everything in the film, but ends the film on kind of a shrug instead of a climax.
You can remove your SPOIL-O-VISION glasses now!
Still, the film is pretty good and bordering on great. It's a powerful, unique and exciting film which is a perfect vehicle to describe the major issues of our times, and indisputably the work of a supremely gifted and thoughtful filmmaker. It may well be the first great international thriller, that has at the very heart of its story a keen understanding of an increasingly post-national power structure juxtaposed against a stubbornly nationalist legal structure. That alone makes it a worthwhile use of your time, and a few great setpieces seal the deal. Tom Tykwer, it turns out you were already off my shit list because of PERFUME, but I'd forgotten that* so this time for sure, I'm officially excited for whatever it is you're doing next. Which, um, seems to be some kind of crazy religious epic with Tom Hanks and the Wachowski brothers? Sounds like exactly the kind of thing a cadre of evil international bankers might force on you. Call me crazy.
*Apparently this is why Santa always checks twice.