[13 February 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Slick and superficially complex, The International provides Clive Owen with the role he plays perfectly: world-weary, occasionally addled, shrewdly moral man of action. In the past, Interpol agent Louis Salinger’s efforts led him into deep trouble and disrepute. Still, he’s clawing his way back, pursuing bad guys and seeking something like justice. Still, and even as he knows the pervasive, utterly efficient reach of the enemy, he means to make right what is so very wrong with the world, namely, the inextricable connections among international arms sales and banking.
It’s a daunting task, to say the least.
Tom Tykwer’s thriller shrewdly introduces Lou as he observes rather than acts. Standing across a busy Berlin thoroughfare, he watches his partner meet with an informant inside a car. Lou can’t hear what goes on, but you can, which means you have slightly more information than he does, but of course, you have no idea what to do with it. The partner makes his way from the car toward Lou, but something goes terribly wrong (that much, you can anticipate), and Lou is left splat in the street, slammed by a vehicle inadvertently. Cut to an emergency room examination, where the doctor wonders whether he has blurred or double vision. No, Lou says, “Nothing.” In the moments that follow, he thinks more about what he’s seen and missed, the failures of his vision. “I was right there,” he repeats, “I saw him go down. I didn’t see a thing.”
What Lou has seen—at least before the trauma in Berlin—has him working with New York Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts). They have uncovered, to a point, the nefarious dealings of a bank, the fictitious IBBC, including money laundering, gun-running, murder, and sustaining Middle Eastern unrest in order to ensure that all clients, large and small, remain in debt, forever, and moreover, that everyone, large and small, is a client, eventually. The brilliance of IBBC’s scheme is its implacable comprehensiveness, its invisibility and also its hypervisibility.
Inspired by the history of the Bank of Credit and Commercial International (a.k.a. the “Bank of Crooks and Criminals International” and shut down in 1991 following the discovery of its many corruptions, buttressed by a private intelligence network, diplomatic agents, and trading companies), Eric Singer’s script is elaborate and mostly mournful, punctuated by spurts of fierce violence. As Lou and Ellie try desperately to see the scheme, to put together the pieces so they might bring legal action, their view is repeatedly obstructed—more than once by IBBC executive Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl). His participation occasions Lou’s effort to decipher his motives: a former Stasi chief, Wilhelm seems an unlikely raging capitalist, and yet, as he explains it, his transformation was premised on his own longtime-coming insight, that the unbeatable system can only be joined.
Lou resists, of course, and the movie tends to privilege his noble endeavor, as he (and the movie) leave Ellie behind, ostensibly so that she might go on precisely because she is at least partially and willfully blind. Lou’s plot, by contrast, turns into an extravagant structure of seeing, as looking is made its own form of action and means of control. Forced to work outside official auspices, Lou conducts and also evades surveillance, with such images variously trustworthy or abjectly false. His pursuit is largely organized around a search for the assassin employed by IBBC, referred to only as the “Consultant” (Brian F. O’Byrne). As he expertly avoids being seen—his face turned precisely from airport security cameras, his appearance so bland as to seem missable, even forgettable—but as Lou redetermines his focus, suddenly the killer becomes increasingly perceptible.
This process achieves an exhilarating climax in the Guggenheim Museum, where a prolonged shootout—involving the Consultant, Lou and a gang of thugs put in place by the bank. This set-piece—lengthy, intricate, and strangely satisfying—pretty much renders the rest of Lou’s do-gooding escapade secondary. As abstract as the space becomes, the camera pointed up and down, roving and retreating, it also makes concrete the political and ideological back-and-forthing, the lack of moral ground, and chaos of all-consuming desire. Midway through the scene, blood erupting and civilians screaming, the point can only be fundamental survival. As Lou drags his broken, bruised body from the scene, he leaves behind an array of corpses on multiple floors and walkways, the camera pulling out to observe the gory red on white tableau. There is no “winning” here. Only seeing.