A Big Bank Is The Villain In 'The International'

Hollywood is always on the lookout for a good villain. The new movie The International stars Naomi Watts and Clive Owen as investigators trying to bring down what is apparently the most evil institution in the world: a multinational bank. Does the movie portray the world of high finance correctly?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

It is true that Hollywood is always on the lookout for a good villain. And one new movie turns out to be on top of the zeitgeist as well. In theaters across the country today, you can see "The International." It stars Naomi Watts and Clive Owen as investigators trying to bring down what is apparently the most evil institution in the world: a multinational bank. We asked NPR's business correspondent Adam Davidson to go to a screening.

ADAM DAVIDSON: I'm no movie critic, but I know a bit about banking and, man oh man, this movie has some really idiotic ideas. Here's a crucial scene. Naomi Watts, the young, gutsy, Manhattan assistant district attorney, is questioning the super-serious Italian arms manufacturer played by Luca Barbareschi. She just learned that the evil bank is selling weapons to some African revolutionary, and she wants to know why.

(Soundbite of movie, "The International)

Mr. LUCA BARBARESCHI (Actor): (As Umberto Calvini) It's about control.

Ms. NAOMI WATTS (Actor): (As Eleanor Whitman) Control the flow of weapons, control the conflict.

Mr. BARBARESCHI: (As Umberto Calvini) No. No. The IBBC is a bank. You see, the real value of a conflict, the true value, is in the debt that it creates. You control the debt, you control everything.

DAVIDSON: The real value is having a poor African revolutionary army owe you money? I'd rather own some subprime mortgage-backed securities.

I actually took a banking expert with me to the movie: Kathleen Scott, banking lawyer with Arnold & Porter.

Ms. KATHLEEN SCOTT (Arnold & Porter): You have to think about it from a practical standpoint. If you have a penniless revolutionary movement, how are they going to pay back billions of dollars in loans to buy arms?

DAVIDSON: Yeah, they didn't answer that. That seemed like a really big question.

Ms. SCOTT: Yeah, and you know, I'm sure that it's a little hard to do due diligence on people who probably don't have much money.

DAVIDSON: If we've learned anything in the last year, it's this: If you control the debt of people who can't pay you back, then you control absolutely nothing. You are, in fact, broke.

Understanding banking matters now, probably more than it ever has. And it's not like banks can't be criticized. Some of them have done some pretty lousy stuff, just none of the stuff that's in this movie.

(Soundbite of movie, "The International)

(Soundbite of screaming and gunfire)

DAVIDSON: Like every few minutes, a bank-hired assassin starts shooting and killing people all over Milan and New York and Istanbul.

(Soundbite of movie, "The International")

(Soundbite of gunfire)

DAVIDSON: Oh, and another absurdity that Scott points out? It drove her crazy. In the movie, the bank's customer base was not at all diversified. Even evil, arms-merchant banks try to have a wide range of customers.

Scott says watching the movie, she was really disappointed at how unrealistic it all was. She tried to get lost in the story.

Ms. SCOTT: But in your mind, you start thinking, well, if it were a bank, this is how I would've, you know, maybe changed the plot of it to make it more interesting. And I'm sure, you know…

DAVIDSON: Like what would you have done?

Ms. SCOTT: I don't know. But something more bank-like, you know, possibly, you know, dealing with sort of, you know, murky debt deals and, you know, bonds and…

DAVIDSON: You're not selling me. I've got to be honest.

Ms. SCOTT: I know. I know, I'm not selling you. Well, that's…

DAVIDSON: All right. All right. It's pretty clear why Hollywood departs, at least a bit, from the real world. The day after seeing the screening, I got to talk to the actual guy who did the actual investigation of the real, evil bank, John Moscow. He's the inspiration for the Naomi Watts character, although he notes some differences between himself and her.

Mr. JOHN MOSCOW (Former D.A.): You have age, sex. She's pretty. I'm not.

DAVIDSON: Moscow did work for the Manhattan D.A. He did investigate an international banking conspiracy, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, back in the late '80s and early '90s. There was pressure from the Feds and the French and many other governments not to pursue the case. And the real BCCI was involved in money laundering, drug sales, arms trafficking, sexual slavery. But his investigation mostly took place in offices, talking on the phone, looking at documents. No shootouts, no kidnappings, no murders.

Mr. MOSCOW: The exercise of power may not be something that a TV camera can pick up.

DAVIDSON: In the movie, pretty much every banker and government official was either pure evil or purely good. Moscow says in the real BCCI case, some folks were, in fact, evil. Some were closed to being pretty much pure good. Most people, though, of course, were in the middle. In the end, Moscow says, the good guys did win in the real case - although a lot of innocent people lost a lot of money.

Mr. MOSCOW: The bank was closed. People went to jail. People's lives were tossed into turmoil. These things did happen. But it's very, very complex.

DAVIDSON: We're going to be spending the next few years trying to figure out what to do with banks. It's suddenly the single most important public policy issue we face. And Moscow's clearly right. The real world of banking is very, very complex, but it would make a lousy movie.

Adam Davidson, NPR News, New York.

MONTAGNE: You won't find movie reviews - which is too bad, Steve, because that was a great one - but there are lots more on global economics at our Planet Money podcast and blog, at NPR.org/money.

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