Friday, July 17, 2009

The International (Relativity Media/Sony/Columbia, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I watched last night was a quite good recent one: The International, a recent (February 2009) release and a piece of international intrigue spiced with anti-capitalist comment — this is probably the most cynical movie made about international capitalism since Network — in which Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and New York assistant district attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) team up to go after the International Bank of Commerce and Credit (a thinly veiled reference to the real Bank of Credit and Commerce International, or BCCI, which fell apart as a result of a series of scandals in the 1990’s and which is described thusly on its Wikipedia page:

“The Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) was a major international bank founded in Karachi, Pakistan in 1972 by Agha Hasan Abedi, a Pakistani financier. The company was registered in Luxembourg. Within a decade BCCI touched its peak, it operated in 78 countries, had over 400 branches, and had assets in excess of US$ 20 billion making it the 7th largest private bank in the world by assets.[1][2]

“BCCI came under the radar of regulatory bodies and intelligence agencies in the 1980’s due to its perceived avoidance of falling under one regulatory banking authority, a fact that was later, after extensive investigations, proven to be true. BCCI became the focus of a massive regulatory battle in 1991 and was described as a ‘$20-billion-plus heist’.

“Investigators in the U.S. and the UK revealed that BCCI had been ‘set up deliberately to avoid centralized regulatory review, and operated extensively in bank secrecy jurisdictions. Its affairs were extraordinarily complex. Its officers were sophisticated international bankers whose apparent objective was to keep their affairs secret, to commit fraud on a massive scale, and to avoid detection.’ BCCI organized its own intelligence network, diplomatic corps and shipping & trading companies.

“The liquidators, Deloitte & Touche, filed a lawsuit against Price Waterhouse and Ernst & Young — the bank’s auditors — which was settled for $175 million in 1998. A further lawsuit against the Emir of Abu Dhabi, a major shareholder, was launched in 1999 for approximately $400 million. BCCI creditors also instituted a $1 billion suit against the Bank of England as a regulatory body. After a nine-year struggle, due to the Bank’s statutory immunity, the case went to trial in January 2004. However, in November 2005, Deloitte dropped its action against the Bank of England as contrary to creditors’ interests.[citation needed][vague][which?] To date liquidators have recovered about 75% of the creditors’ lost money.[3]”

In the movie, the bank goes far beyond regulatory evasion and gets into all sorts of unsavory activities, including arms dealing and bankrolling an African revolutionary, Charles Motomba of Liberia (Lucian Msamati) — a character pretty obviously based on the late Laurent Kabila of the Congo — just so the bank will hold the country’s loans after he takes over the government and thereby will be able to boost its Third World assets. The bank’s plot, worked out by CEO Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen) and his principal advisors, is to provide arms to all sorts of civil conflicts throughout the world, on both sides. To pull this off he needs a sophisticated missile guidance system that’s made by only two companies in the world: one owned by Italian businessman and aspiring politician (writer Eric Singer seems to have been thinking of Silvio Berlusconi here) Umberto Calvini (Luca Giorgio Barbareschi) and Turkish arms maker Ahmet Sunay (Haluk Bilginer). The bank also hires its own hit man (Brian F. O’Byrne), listing him on the books as a “consultant” (which is what the character is called in the credits), to remove anyone and everyone who threatens to expose the scope of its operations — including one of its own executives, André Clement (Georges Bigot), who’s murdered early on in what’s faked to look like an auto accident — this after he met with one of Salinger’s agents, who was also killed by being administered a poison that made it look like he’d had a heart attack.

The International is directed by Tom Tykwer, whose most famous credit is Run, Lola, Run, and while this isn’t as nervy a film it is a quite capable thriller, a marvelously structured film in which the good guys, Salinger and Whitman, are caught up in a Kafka-esque web of frustration, eventually explained when a disgusted former bank insider, Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl), explains it all to them in a speech strikingly reminiscent of the “there is no America, there is no democracy” speech in Network, saying that the bank is involved with so many governments in the world, including the U.S.’s, and so many people on all sides of the world’s conflicts — including Israel and Hezbollah — are dependent on the bank’s services that the governments of the world will simply not allow people like Salinger and Whitman to hold it accountable for anything.

The spirit of Alfred Hitchcock hangs heavy over this movie — especially in a shoot-out inside the Guggenheim Museum in New York (the real museum couldn’t be used since Singer’s script called for it to be riddled with bullet holes at the end, so the filmmakers acquired the original plans for it and used those to build an exact duplicate of its interior inside a sound stage), the sort of exotic and picturesque location in which Hitchcock liked to stage his climaxes — and The International isn’t as fast or exciting as it would have been if Hitchcock had been around to make it, but on its own it’s a first-rate thriller and far, far better than Clive Owen’s subsequent foray into international intrigue in the hopelessly confusing (on purpose!) Duplicity.

The International
got a big promotional “push,” including a TV ad campaign, by its distributor, Sony, and sank virtually without a trace at the box office, which is a pity — this is a quite good modern movie, plotted in a linear fashion and without the deliberately obfuscating welter of flashbacks that weighed down Duplicity, with the characters having clear motives for what they do and a blessed lack of sexual tension between Owen and Watts — her character is established early on as having a husband and kids in New York and she’s therefore not interested in anyone else (and there’s only a brief, passing hint of him having any interest in her).

Several people on an message board criticized Watts for an impersonal performance and said she’d got as far as she has in Hollywood only by being Nicole Kidman’s friend, but I found her performance here just fine. The impassivity some of the commentators criticized seemed to me credible as a portrayal of a rather impersonal character, who’s able to function at work only by tuning everything else out and just doing her job (and not dwelling on how her activities against the International might jeopardize the safety of hubby and kids back home), though it’s actually Mueller-Stahl who takes the acting honors, portraying a sad little man who worked for the East Germans, defied their government and its abuses, then ended up selling out to the bank and is only now getting cold feet about that.

The International deserved a better fate than it got — indeed, I could readily see a Leftist group like Activist San Diego showing it at a meeting and using it to spark a discussion of the power of international banks and just how far they will go to maximize their profits — and it’s a real pity that films like this (which got bad preview scores when it was originally completed for release in August 2008 — the release was moved to February 2009 to allow the filmmakers to include more action) are such a hard sell these days; for all its melodrama and some barely credible plot devices, more than most movies The International levels with the audience about who we are as a race and how we are governed, by whom and why.