The International is different from its post-9/11 political thriller peers.
The International is different from its post-9/11 political thriller peers. Director Tom Tykwer certainly embraces many of the excesses of the genre: convoluted plot machinations; the pathological need for globe-trotting; and a script too finely geared towards setting up aphoristic one liners. But the editing is much more deliberate than the hectic cutting of The Bourne Supremacy, the bad guys far more nebulous than those in State of Play and the overall tone far too cynical for an English-language production with blockbuster aspirations. The International is, in some ways, a throwback to the paranoid films of the ‘70s (such as The Parallax View), but is also firmly embedded in the geopolitical climate of 2009.
The plot is simple enough: Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is a jaded Interpol agent pursuing a case against a nefarious international investment bank which wantonly deals arms, launders money and manipulates transfers of governmental authority all over the world. He partners with Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) to bring the bank to justice. Through a web of assassinations, shootouts and double-crosses, Salinger decides that normal legal channels for punishing the bank are unfeasible and that he must take matters into his own hands so he abandons Whitman and becomes a renegade agent of vengeance.
This rather silly, twisting narrative is not what makes The International worthy of celebrating eight years after its release. Even its unusually acerbic plot resolution—that the bad guys are just bureaucrats who will be replaced by the next soulless shill happy to plunder the world for promotion up the corporate ladder—is, while refreshing in a period of Hollywood glad-handing towards the military-industrial complex (Iron Man, for instance), just an updated version of a movie thesis first posited by the German Expressionists nearly a century ago.
The International is instead special for its visual style, ambitious set production and general mood of impending doom. The International features several scenes where a perturbed Salinger is shown marching purposefully into a building to speak truth to power. In each of these, Tykwer has selected a massive architectural wonder and staged the scene so that Owen appears a tiny blot against some enormous edifice. The visual message is clear: the purveyors of good and justice are up against a faceless giant whose sheer preponderant size threatens to squash them in their tracks. This architectural motif is paired with Fritz Lang-ian cityscapes of crowds going about their routines and gray skies which cast a dreary feel about the film.
The ambitious set production adds to this visual style, particularly in the assassination sequence of a Milano politician delivering a campaign speech. To make this plausible, the film needed to create the paraphernalia of a political campaign—shirts, slogans, pennants and so on. Even more audaciously, to stage a shootout in the Guggenheim, Tykwer had his crew build a replica in an abandoned warehouse. This true-to-life re-creation of the Guggenheim even included filling the museum with an art exhibit—an avant-garde film—that litters the background as bullets fly. This level of movie magic, coupled with the visual motifs of dreariness and the intimidating large-ness of evil, create a sense of impending danger and doom; the world is on the precipice of violence engineered and manipulated by greedy men in some palatial building somewhere in Europe. This generates that ‘70s-style paranoia, which Owen accentuates by playing Salinger as a manic, anxious man always peering over his shoulder.
The International has its limitations as a film. There are aggravatingly pompous declarations too intentionally manufactured by the script; people do not talk in real life as they do in the film. There are the hero’s names—Whitman and Salinger—being too-obvious literary references. The film has a scene where the bank president plays backgammon with his son in a fireplace-illuminated, hyperbolically sleek living room. It’s a tacky, performed sense of menace. One of the primary supporting characters is a near-omnipotent assassin, while another is a retired rogue agent who advises Salinger to give up trying to prosecute the bank through normal means. These stock characters and events hold back The International from any higher ambitions to artfulness or intellectual rigor. It remains, however, an undeniably entertaining, trend-disrupting thriller that unabashedly displays the cynicism with banks and the war on terrorism of a certain sort of intellectual back in 2009.