Sunday, February 15, 2009
The International is a smart, stylish thriller, taking as its subject the unprecedented control that banks and shadowy economic brokers have over world affairs — a timely topic if ever there was one — and cloaking it in the garb of an international spy thriller. Director Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run was essentially about the ways in which our choices can influence our lives even despite forces beyond our control, and this film addresses similar concerns on a grander, more global scale. It's a world-hopping espionage piece, set in Italy, France, Turkey, New York, Luxembourg, with a frankly preposterous premise that Tykwer follows through with such carefully calibrated mechanics that it begins to seem almost plausible. Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is an Interpol agent investigating an international bank whose directors are dipping their fingers into the workings of organized crime, Third World coups, arms dealing and international diplomacy. Salinger has been trying to expose the corrupt dealings of the bank for years, but has always been undermined and thrown off the trail, his witnesses dying in mysterious "accidents" or his superiors suddenly getting cold feet about the investigations.
But he now seems to be closer than ever to the center of the bank's illicit dealings, thanks to the cooperation of Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) of the Manhattan DA's office (don't ask why they're involved in the first place — it's one of several unrealistic touches in the script that Tykwer simply steamrolls over). The investigation proceeds with a steady, methodical pace, and Tykwer tracks its progress with patience and visual acuity. It's a film about solitary figures in a showdown with faceless corporate institutions, so it's fitting that the camerawork so often favors long shots and architecturally precise compositions. Tykwer has a real eye for the glossy, glassy surfaces of corporate architecture, for buildings that seem to be constructed entirely of windows, and his camera brilliantly captures these crystalline structures, glowing ice-blue in the night or reflecting silvery sunlight in the day. Tykwer sets up nearly every scene, every location, with long shots in which people are dwarfed by the massive, rigidly designed buildings that loom over them, buildings in which the grids of glass and steel are emphasized with the poeticized precision of Saul Bass' famed opening to Hitchcock's North By Northwest. These characters seem to exist almost entirely in buildings like this, and the camera's objective distance abstracts the people, investing more personality and beauty into the images of the buildings they inhabit.
This abstraction is sometimes to the film's detriment, particularly when dealing with its leads, who are entirely generic and mission-focused, with little or no depth to their characters. Watts gets a single, entirely empty, scene with her family, as if simply to establish that she does have one before moving on. Owen is a cipher as well, seemingly existing only to defeat this bank: there's little hint of why he's so obsessed or what he's actually like as a person. The film's most interesting characters wind up being two of the villains, namely Brian O'Byrne as a surprisingly bland and blank-faced assassin with a taste for art, and the always fascinating Armin Mueller-Stahl as bank official Wilhelm Wexler, a former Communist politico who betrayed his principles to work for a capitalist conspiracy. Mueller-Stahl's icy blue eyes and the expressive folds of his worn face communicate the weary resignation of his character, the betrayals and losses of his long and hard life, with more depth of feeling than the script allows for. During his climactic confrontation with Owen's Salinger, he is electrifying, bringing some much needed emotional subtlety to the film's generally cold, clinical atmosphere.
For the most part, though, this coldness and abstraction serve the film well. Tykwer's filmmaking is precise and methodical, focused on process and cause-and-effect chains rather than character arcs or emotional relationships. At one point, he breaks from the central action for a crisply edited montage that traces the progress of a bullet casing as it makes its way to serve as a piece of crime scene evidence. Only during the frantic shootout at the Guggenheim Museum (the brief and, admittedly, viscerally exciting moment when Salinger improbably makes the transition from a dogged detective to a tough-guy action hero) does Tykwer's editing become frenetic and chopped-up Bourne-style. His geometric precision does still show through in the way he toys with the museum's distinctive spiraling ramp architecture. One wishes, however, that he'd maintained the evenly paced, deliberate quality of the rest of the film for this action showcase: had he allowed for more of the distancing long shots he so often deploys throughout the rest of the film, this sequence might not have seemed like such a drastic tonal discontinuity from the material that surrounds it.
Indeed, elsewhere Tykwer especially favors macro-level shots, switching to a high, wide angle to watch the dispersal of a crowd after the assassination of a political figure; from this vantage point, the people scurrying around down below look like ants swarming from a nest. This subtle non-humanist slant is certainly intentional, accentuating the ways in which world affairs are controlled and manipulated on a scale where the individual hardly matters at all. As the bank's chief officer, Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen), himself stresses at the denouement, even he is ultimately unimportant, replaceable, only a cog in an institution that will survive even the loss of its head. The film's end credits roll over a backdrop of newspaper headlines that emphasize the circularity and inevitability of the whole story: the same secret dealings and manipulations play out no matter who's pulling the strings. This is a fine, well-made thriller in which individual actions hardly matter when balanced against the interests and actions of world institutions. And yet it's the individual moral choice, the decision to fight back or speak out or struggle against the faceless enemy, that is the film's driving force and ethical center.