Capital Markets

Big, Bad, Boring Bankers

The interminable socialism of The International

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It's rarely difficult to spot a banker bad guy on the big-screen: the refined speech and perfect coiffure, the shiny suit and impeccably knotted tie, the gleaming black luxury sedan, and the squad of menacing thugs behind him. He (and it's almost always a he) carries a mobile phone that won't even be out for another two years, works in a hyper-modern office with a magnificent view, and delivers every line with expertly calibrated condescension and a hint of a sneer. It's all business, and it's only business. Sorry, chap!

In The International, director Tom Tykwer's thriller about power and corruption in international finance, villainous multinational bankers and their henchmen are everywhere—the rooftops of Istanbul, the streets of Milan, the art-decked walkways of New York's Guggenheim. They finance wars, enslave nations and peoples to debt, and murder with impunity. And the only one who can stop the cuff link-clad killers is Clive Owen, disheveled but determined INTERPOL investigator.

As agent Louis Salinger, Owen is everything the film's banker villains are not: unkempt, unshaven, impolitic, prone to wearing suits that appear to have been wadded up in garbage bag for a week. Nor does he care about money. Instead, like Steven Seagal, he's out for justice against the thieving profiteers of the world.

Along with New York attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), he spends most of the movie on the trail of a particularly nasty band of lenders who are scheming to consolidate their power through a complex series of international arms deals. Much of the time, that means sitting in interminable meetings explaining bank records and investigation reports to each other. Occasionally, it means tracking a balding, one-legged assassin who does the bank's dirty work. (In one of the film's only clever lines, one of the bank's executives coolly refers to him as "a consultant.")

It doesn't spoil much to say that the movie doesn't put much stock in bankers, banking, or anything related to the financial system. Which is pretty much every organization and institution in the Western world's democratic-capitalist system. "Hezbollah, the CIA, China, Iran, Germany, every multinational corporation—every one!" They're all involved, a caught banker explains, in a financial system that's built to guarantee its own survival by enslaving the world, one nation at a time, in the chains of debt. "Money," the film's lead banker baddie explains, "is not our primary medium of exchange." (Try telling that to the ticket-seller at the box-office.)

The only way to throw a wrench into the capitalist machine, to provide the justice Owen craves, is to step outside the system—to ignore the law and do what it takes to make the bad guys pay. To put it another way, he suggests that justice requires a violent revolution against capitalism. Where have we heard this before?

Perhaps it's not capitalism, just capitalism's excesses—the rapacious bankers who abuse their money and power—which are at fault? Maybe, but when the person delivering the lecture is revealed to be a former Communist stalwart, one whose fall into the banking-world cesspool requires redemption, it's hard to interpret it any other way.

Still, who cares if its politics lean toward revolutionary anti-capitalism? Is it entertaining? Aside from a terrific shoot-out in the Guggenheim—Owen starts at the top of the rotunda and must work his way down through a seemingly endless supply of thugs armed with automatic weapons—not very. Owen, Watts, and the cast of Eurojerk financiers spend most of the movie taking turns delivering drab expository dialog, like unhelpful animatronic guides on an Epcot Center ride. The conspiratorial bent just makes it all seem ridiculous, not suspenseful, which means The International fails as both excitement and insight. It's as paranoid as a WTO protester, but as boring as a spreadsheet.

Peter Suderman blogs at TheAmericanScene.com.