April, 2005, Thriller

The Interpreter

Thrillers, especially politically-themed ones, require a balancing act between sufficient background information to lend credibility and urgency to the storyline without allowing that exposition to get in the way of the devices employed to propel the action. (Z, the very best in this class, is a must-see for just that reason.) Too much attention on action and there's no opportunity to develop fully realized characters. Yet too much discourse on underlying motivations dissipates momentum. Hitchcock's early success in the genre, (39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes) waned as he grew older, (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Torn Curtain) because too much screen time explaining "why" rather than showing "how". 

Sidney Pollack, the master director who's provided audiences with Tootsie, The Way We Were and Three Days of the Condor, (among a host of other enormously popular Hollywood successes) weakens "The Interpreter" by over-emphasizing the expository, but his film still packs enough punch to make it the best mainstream action movie thus far this year. If only the director had been a bit less inclined to take his subject so ponderously…

Nicole Kidman plays Silvia Broome, an interpreter at the United Nations, who overhears what may be a plot to kill President Zuwanie, the unpopular head of an African country, (Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe?) embroiled in a vicious civil war. To defend himself in the eyes of the world community, Zuwanie has demanded the right to address the U.N.'s General Assembly. Tobin Keller, (Sean Penn) a highly skeptical Secret Service agent, investigates Silvia's claim and as he does so, Keller discovers that she's shrouding her connections to the target in concentric circles of evasive behavior. Despite her attempts to thwart his efforts, Keller uncovers several seemingly innocuous details that allow him to uncover the threat of a terrorist strike against one of Zuwaine's rivals, living in exile just across the East River in Brooklyn. As Keller and his team race to prevent violence against the president's opponent, conflicting signals suggest a connection between these apparently unrelated events. Zuwaine's appearance cannot be delayed and Broome's motives can't be fathomed; the would-be assassin - - (if indeed there is one) can't be identified or located and the clock's ticking…

Pollack's lost none of his ability to tell a good story and he embellishes it with the kind of visual detail that adds tension as his tale unfolds. New York's boroughs have never looked more authentic; cinematographer Darius Kohndji, (an Iranian with over two dozen movies to his professional credit) uses the city so well Mayor Bloomberg should get a screen credit. The interiors of the U.N. have a thoroughly credible look, as does Broome's apartment, often seen in rain-drenched exteriors in the dead of night. Various civil-service types in the large supporting cast speak in the weary bureaucratic tone that lends credibility to the complex stage-managing of the security details involved, making the movie bristle with energy even when focused on activities that aren't inherently all that interesting. 

But the best part of Interpreter is to be found in Kidman's performance; it's an understated gem, tailored-made for her "fire and ice" screen persona. In the past, her delicate features and careful enunciation often undercut her credibility; in movies such as The Human Stain and Cold Mountain, she wasn't capable of radiating the kind of primal strength her parts required. But Silvia Broome is a different matter altogether; Kidman presents a woman who's tough-minded, resilient and self-assured despite her obvious physic wounds, making her as fascinating to listen to as she is stunning to watch. Pollack uses Kidman's delicate features to amplify the nuances of language she uses in her work and Kidman makes the best of it, giving audiences an intriguing personality as well as a compellingly sympathetic one. It's Kidman's best performance in years.

As the morose government gumshoe however, Sean Penn disappoints as never before and he's not helped by the screenplay, which makes his character pale in comparison to his co-star's. Ever since his scenery chewing, Oscar-winning role in Mystic River, Penn's work has become increasingly mannered, culminating in last year's excruciating The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Does this superb craftsman take himself, (and his rave notices) a bit too seriously? As Penn plays him, Tobin Keller's chief weapon against evil-doers is his ability to simply anesthetize them with world-weary ennui. To make matters worse, the plot device Pollack uses to provide Keller a bit of gravitas gets telegraphed so quickly and frequently it lacks the kind of punch required for Penn's big scene with Kidman. As a result, the acting honors go to her, nolo contendere. The film's trio of screenwriters may be primarily at fault; they also manage to completely waste the talents of the normally captivating Catherine Keener, (Lovely & Amazing) who plays Tobin's Secret Service partner. She's given nothing of significance to do beyond looking sympathetic and even this talented actress has a tough time making that assignment interesting.

But the most significant flaw in The Interpreter lies in the colonialist worldview implicit in its tacit assumption that only first-world whites can ultimately resolve third-world violence. Like last year's Hotel Rwanda, Pollack uses this fictional story of attempted assassination to once again signal that only the active involvement of civilized whites is sufficient to overcome the inherent Black-African tendency towards barbarism. That kind of political statement is as racist as it is asinine and it casts a distasteful pall over an otherwise workman-like piece of commercial entertainment.           

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