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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The new movie, "The International, has Clive Owen has as its hero, a bank as its villain and a finance industry plotline like nothing you will find at your local bank branch.

(Soundbite of movie, "The International")

BLOCK: The advertisement for "The International" call this film about a dangerous bank, the perfect thriller for our time. That got our critic Bob Mondello thinking. He says some of Hollywood's earlier corporate villains were also said to be perfect for their times.

BOB MONDELLO: Seems like only yesterday that we were all afraid of Big Oil. The movie, Syriana told us why.

(Soundbite of movie "Syriana")

Mr. MATT DAMON (Actor): (As Bryan Woodman) It's running out and 90 percent of what's left is in the Middle East. This is a fight to the death.

MONDELLO: Before oil companies, it was power companies that were reliably evil in the movies, building unsafe nuclear plants in "The China Syndrome."

(Soundbite of movie, "The China Syndrome")

Mr. JACK LEMMON (Actor): (As Jack Godell) There was a vibration!

MONDELLO: Exposing Meryl Streep to radiation in "Silkwood."

(Soundbite of movie, "Silkwood")

Ms. MERYL STREEP (Actor): (As Karen Silkwood) There was some contamination in (unintelligible).

MONDELLO: Spilling toxic waste into drinking water in "Erin Brockovich."

(Soundbite of movie, "Erin Brockovich)

MONDELLO: More recently, it was pharmaceutical companies that were running amok, callously testing dangerous drugs on unsuspecting Africans in "The Constant Gardener."

(Soundbite of movie, "The Constant Gardener")

MONDELLO: Have I left out arms dealers? Well, Hollywood certainly hasn't. And car companies, chemical companies, food, trash, media, insurance - you name it companies have all been dragged into cinematic court to try to justify their hideous practices.

(Soundbite of movie)

Unidentified Man (Actor): I have spent 12 percent of my life defending the reputation of a deadly weed killer.

MONDELLO: Outside the multiplex, though we tend to think of most of these corporate entities as necessary pillars of society. We need weed killers, after all, but that doesn't mean we trust the chemical companies that make them - any more than we do banks. Banks are big, impersonal and waste the fees they charge us on gazillion-dollar executive bonuses. So if a movie like "The International" wants to maintain that a bank is involved in illegal arms deals, all Clive Owen and Naomi Watts have to do to make that persuasive is get an arms maker to explain what's in it for the bank.

(Soundbite of movie, "The International")

Mr. CLIVE OWEN (Actor): (As Louis Salinger) Billions of dollars invested simply to be a broker. There can't be that much profit for them.

Mr. ULRICH THOMSEN (Actor): (As Jonas Skarssen) This is not about making profit from one of those aids. It's about control.

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

Mr. THOMSEN: (As Jonas Skarssen) No, no. The IBBC is a bank. Their objective isn't to control the conflict. It's to control the debts that the conflict produces.

MONDELLO: Debt, of course. Hooking third world countries into interest payments is just like giving college students credit cards — just on a bigger scale. I can buy that. Now, what do you say we join Clive Owen in shooting up the Guggenheim Art Museum?

(Soundbite of movie, "The International")

(Soundbite of gunshots)

MONDELLO: There is a difference, let's note, between most of these corporate-villainy movies, which deal with institutions keeping secret their unwise or corrupt choices, and a movie like "The International," which starts out that way, but is about an institution so centrally corrupt — and so central to society — that government, regulators, market forces, even the people who run it, have no power to make it less dangerous.

MONDELLO: That's sort of a science fictiony notion. And in a sci-fi fantasy — say, "Soylent Green" where the Soylent Corporation totally controls the world's food supply — it makes for a great conflict. In the real world, though, it can be less persuasive, especially when events intervene. Sure, we're angry right now with financial institutions for the collapse of our 401Ks, so yes, an evil bank wrecking the world resonates.

But think how much more it would have resonated six months ago, before we found out that if you really want to bring a bank to its knees, you don't need Clive Owen shooting people, just a subprime mortgage or two.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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