"THE INTERPRETER" is a good film that would very much like to be better, but that was not to be. While it would be a mistake to devalue the qualities director Sydney Pollack and stars Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn bring to this complex political thriller, that's not the same as saying it is completely successful.
A canny veteran whose directing career began 40 years ago, Pollack (whose resume includes 1975's similarly themed "Three Days of the Condor") brings the kind of burnished professionalism to his films that is on the way to becoming one of Hollywood's lost arts.
In Kidman and Penn, Pollack has actors who can add credibility to standard lines and melodramatic situations, an asset that is especially useful for what is basically a B picture scenario with A picture aspirations.
Kidman plays Silvia Broome, a native of the mythical African country of Matobo, now working for the United Nations in New York as one of those word wizards who sit high up in glass booths and coolly translate while delegates pontificate on the General Assembly floor. The actress, always the chameleon, manages to be appropriately geeky (but in a glam way) as one of the idealistic worker bees who keep the U.N. functioning.
In the kind of venerable plot device beloved by screenwriters (of which "Interpreter" has more than its share), Silvia just happens to be in her booth late one night when she overhears a sentence in Matobo's equally mythical Ku language. "The Teacher," a man says, "will never leave this room alive."
Silvia not only understands the words, she knows what they mean. The Teacher is Matobo's aging tyrant, President Edmund Zuwanie, who is scheduled to come to the U.N. to respond to charges of genocide. As its "Who Wants to Kill a Great Despot of Africa" plot kicks in, Silvia is placed in the care of federal agents Tobin Keller (Penn) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener).
If Keener has all the film's funny lines ("Ma'am, please don't touch the prime minister," she says as only she can to an overeager lap dancer hovering over another head of state), it falls to Penn to capably play the stern, no-nonsense operative who is dealing with a personal crisis as well as the looming assassination plot.
The collision of Kidman and Penn's characters -- guess what, they don't initially get along -- is one of the advertised lures of "The Interpreter," with the director saying in the press notes that he was looking for "oil and water, sandpaper and silk." Not surprisingly, when the script calls for the agent and the interpreter to be mutually mistrustful and spar verbally about grief, vengeance and the like, their antipathy is convincing. So convincing, in fact, that their inevitable rapprochement, their deepening emotional connection, feels like it takes place only because it's mandated by the script.
This inability to deliver completely on its aims is one of the drawbacks of "The Interpreter," a defect possibly due to the fact that so many credited (and likely some uncredited) writers were used it may have been difficult to get them all on the same page, so to speak.
In addition to a screenplay by Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian, based on a story by Martin Stellman and Brian Ward, the film seems to be crediting yet another source when it offers the following enigmatic acknowledgment: "With the help of 'The Interpreter' by Suzanne Glass." In this case, the more is definitely not the merrier, even with some of the best writers in the business as part of the team.
While recently successful political thrillers like "The Bourne Identity" and its sequel concentrated on being the best nail-biters possible, "The Interpreter," with an interest in being a serious drama, sacrifices tension in a search for something nobler that it is unable, finally, to pull off.
But though "The Interpreter" doesn't crackle with tension as much as it might, it does have the kind of intelligence and concern with real-world political issues (for instance, its savvy dissection of the political rivalries in poor benighted Matobo) that are valuable in political melodramas.
Typical of this concern, on a production level, is the way Pollack's perseverance led to "The Interpreter" being the first film to receive authorization to shoot inside the U.N. building in Manhattan. (Even Alfred Hitchcock had to make do with a mock-up in a key scene from "North by Northwest.")
Equally impressive, in a time when the U.N. has turned into everyone's favorite punching bag as well as an institution the U.S. seems to be in the process of disowning, is the film's implicit plea for this organization as the best way to deal with the world's difficulties.
Yes, this could be a better film, but the good qualities it does have are rare enough to hold our interest on screen and off.
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By The Numbers / Interpreting Sydney Pollack