With global attention
riveted to terrorism and genocide, The Interpreter is certainly a
trenchant and timely film. For though the action takes place in New
York City, what is really happening onscreen is being orchestrated by forces
across the world, in a tiny (fictional) African nation of Matobo. (The
country is undoubtedly based on Zimbabwe, where there is a famous national
park called Matobo Hills.) The
country is run with an iron-fist by an aging dictator named Dr. Edmund Zuwanie -- a former freedom fighter who appears to have been corrupted by
his power. Zuwanie insists, however, that his regime is misunderstood;
he is simply fighting off two violent revolutionary factions and being
forced to fight fire with fire.
The dire cheapness of life
is telegraphed vividly in an early scene in which two revolutionaries are
taken to a soccer stadium to find dozens of freshly killed bodies. When
they leave the compound, they are ambushed by a group of little boys.
However, though the country
and its problems suffuse the film, it takes place in the United States.
More specifically, for a great deal of the screen time, in the United
Nations building. The Interpreter is the first film to be
allowed to be shot on the actual location, and it is a wonderful
opportunity, because just the building and its interiors give the movie a
realism and gravity that a stage set could never convey.
The story revolves around
Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), who was born in the US but grew up in Matobo.
As a child her parents and sister were killed in a mine blast, causing
Silvia and her brother to become rebels for the cause of toppling Zuwanie.
However, she appears to have left her rebel beliefs in the past, returning
to the United States and getting a job in the bastion of diplomacy; as an
interpreter in the UN. One night while returning to get some of her
things from her booth, she overhears someone speaking in a dialect native to
her homeland, apparently threatening the life of Zuwanie when he arrives at
the UN to defend himself at an international tribunal.
When Silvia reports what she
has heard, she becomes the responsibility of Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), a
Secret Service agent in charge of protecting visiting foreign dignitaries.
Keller is in the uncomfortable position of not exactly trusting the woman
who is his only witness. Her story does not on the surface of it seem
to make much sense. What are the chances that someone would plan a
murder on the UN floor? And how likely would it be that the threat
would be in a language that most people in the world would not know, and
there would happen to be a woman who spoke the dialect to overhear the plan?
An anonymous tip dredges up Broome's rebel past, and
the fact that her brother is still fighting the fight at home.
Keller, who is just
weathering a tragedy in his own life, decides to trust the mysterious and
obviously frightened woman. It makes sense to him when she points out that if she
wanted Zuwanie dead, she would have simply never reported what she heard.
Besides, as his boss (played by the film's director, Sydney Pollack) points
out, the UN has had some really bad press recently, they certainly can't allow an
assassination on the floor.
This leads to a series of
crosses and double-crosses as it turns out both rebel factions have
representatives in New York. And while Keller and Tobin become closer
(though, to the film's credit, they resist the typical Hollywood impulse of
making the two become romantically involved) he can tell that she is hiding
some vital information from him.
Director Pollack, an old
pro, knows how to fashion a tense political thriller. (Just check out
his mid-seventies classic The Three Days of the Condor with Robert
Redford and Faye Dunaway or his version of John Grisham's The Firm
with Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman.) For an example of taut, suspenseful
moviemaking at its best, you need go no farther than a scene where Secret
Service agents follow three separate and apparently opposing parties in the
revolution as they go off in different directions but somehow end up on the
same public city bus.
It also helps that the film
stars some of our best actors in strong performances. Penn is
especially good, muzzling his occasional tendency to go over the top (he was
great in Mystic River, but it wasn't exactly a restrained
performance) as a man who has been blind-sided by life and is trying to find
some sanity through work. Kidman is interestingly ambiguous here,
everytime we think we have a handle on her character she reveals a new
wrinkle. It is her best role in a few years, although her recent
history of The Stepford Wives, Birth and The Human Stain isn't
exactly tough competition. Indie-movie veteran Catherine Keener is
extremely good, too, though somewhat wasted in a rather blah role as Penn's
The movie has some faults;
in the end, it takes one or two too many plot-twists. More than
one of the
main characters seemingly have dramatic changes of heart. Those may be somewhat
understandable after the events shown, but are still against all that the
stood for. Also, more than once, the film falls back on characters
having pieces of information which they probably would have had no access to
(this is particularly blatant in a scene when a rebel tosses out an idea
that ends up prophesizing one of his enemy's plans.).
Even with these problems,
The Interpreter is a gripping drama. Pollack recognizes what so
many newer directors do not understand; that bloody set pieces are not the
only way to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. In a not
totally subtle political point-of-view, the film contrasts the rash and
swift reactions of the current United States government (as represented by
Penn and his co-horts) with the more measured, thought-out, diplomatic
musings of the United Nations. The Interpreter is a film which, true to its UN setting, luxuriates in
the subtlety of
words. What people say and the meanings behind it can cause as much
pain and unrest as their actions.
As Kidman's character explains, more blood has been shed due to mere
misunderstanding of other people than nearly any other
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Posted: April 17, 2005.