Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn in The Interpreter (2005)


(director: Sydney Pollack; screenwriters: story by Martin Stellman & Brian Ward/Charles Randolph/Scott Frank/Steven Zaillian/David Rayfiel-uncredited; cinematographer: Darius Khondji; editor: William Steinkamp; music: James Newton Howard; cast: Nicole Kidman (Silvia Broome), Sean Penn (Tobin Keller), Catherine Keener (Dot Woods), Earl Cameron (Zuwanie), George Harris (Kuman-Kuman), Curtiss I’ Cook (Ajene Xola), Jesper Christensen (Nils Lud), Yvan Attal (Philippe), Hugo Speer (Simon Broome), Yusuf Gatewood (Doug), Byron Utley (Jean Gamba), Sydney Pollack (Jack, Secret Service Boss); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Tim Bevan/Eric Fellner/Kevin Misher; Universal Pictures; 2005)

“Well-made but unimportant political thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Sydney Pollack’s (“Three Days of the Condor”/”Out of Africa”) well-made but unimportant political thriller (more a character driven than a plot driven story) is set in New York City and frames its story around an assassination plot of an African leader set to speak at the United Nations. This is the first time the U.N. ever granted permission to film inside the building, and the U.N. becomes the film’s real star giving the story a sense of immediacy it would never have had with a substitute setting. It also gives a credibility to the U.N. and its goals for world peace through diplomacy that has been ridiculed by the Bush administration, as this unfashionable narrative holds the venerable institution up to more respect than it has received from most of the world community in the last few years.

Silvia Broome is a U.N. translator who was born in America, educated in Europe, but raised by her white parent farmers in a fictitious south African country called Matobo, ruled by Dr. Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), a liberator who became a tyrant when in power and in his old age is referred to by his followers as The Teacher. Zuwanie is accused of genocide over ethnic cleansing and the World Criminal Court in the Hague is set to bring him to trial as a war criminal at the urgings of the French–while the American diplomats urge him to resign and be spared as an exile.

One day the U.N. is evacuated because of a threat and when Silvia returns to pick up her belongings she overhears a whispered conversation in Ku, a dialect spoken in Matobo (it’s a fictitious language mixed in with Swahili that was invented for the movie), that mentions Zuwanie will be assassinated the day he comes to address the General Assembly to state his case to remain in power. The next day Silvia reports it and the Secret Service team of Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) are sent to investigate, with Woods fresh off her assignment of telling a naked lap dancer to not touch the oriental premier she’s guarding. The brokenhearted Tobin is grieving that his estranged dancer wife died in an auto accident two weeks ago in a car driven by her dancer boyfriend, and gets off to a bad start by antagonizing the subject while cynically questioning her and challenging her to see if she’s a suspect or a victim. Tobin sees his job as transporting the tyrant in and out of the country as quickly as possible without an incident, as if any harm that comes to him on American soil will reflect poorly on his country. His partner Woods is more distant and more officiously policelike with the subject while doting over Tobin but unable to tell him that she’s in love with him, even though it’s apparent if he were more observant. Silvia, as Tobin’s opposite, abrasively fences with the federal agent as he grills her and then becomes indignant when he questions if she’s telling the truth as he tries to pry out her secrets. But they both realize the other is smart, and leave room for a closer relationship to develop over time. They are also joined by the white Matoban security chief Nils Lud (Jesper Christensen), a holdover from when the Dutch ruled, who is lectured to by Tobin when he tries to independently question Silvia. A tail is put on Silvia, and when she spots a masked black man in her apartment, her screams scare him off as the feds now take her claims more seriously.

Meanwhile we are constantly fed info through various sources that helps clarify what’s going down, but considerably slows the thriller down. Tobin’s immediate boss (Sydney Pollack) has the thankless utilitarian role of clearing things up and keeping things moving whenever necessary. We soon learn that the bloody despot’s two main rivals – a former pacifist and still socialist Ajene Xola (Curtiss I’ Cook) and a Brooklyn dwelling capitalist/rebel opportunist Kuman-Kuman (George Harris) – have put aside their differences to unite against him. Also, Silvia’s background check reveals that the evasive lady was once deeply involved in Matobo’s politics and her former boyfriend was Xola. The opening scene is cleared up, as we learn that Silvi’s estranged older brother Simon, whom she dearly misses, was executed at the site of a massacre in a rundown Matobo soccer stadium by a child follower of The Teacher. But not much is made of the politics, or what Silvia did as a young activist except she’s now a believer in the U.N. ‘s idealism which puts her at odds with her radical past and leaves us forever confused about her real motives.

The film’s set action piece has a Brooklyn bus explode in Crown Heights. The finale, involving the assassination attempt during Zuwanie’s speech, seems too much like those enacted in other Hollywood thrillers to be fresh and was drained of suspense by its too cleverly devised twists. The plot line always seemed convoluted and the more it was explained the less likely did it seem credible. Steven Zaillian finished the script started by Charles Randolph and Scott Frank, who based it on the story by Martin Stellman and Brian Ward. Longtime Pollack collaborator, the writer David Rayfiel, in an uncredited role polishes up the script and tosses in his now much used line from other Pollack films starting with The Slender Thread (1965), as Penn tells Kidman: “Not getting caught in a lie is thought of in the same way as telling the truth.”

The enjoyment comes from the two masterful Method actors, the introspective Brando-like Sean Penn searching for the truth about his role and the more instinctive Nicole Kidman playing to the exotic foreignness her character conveys in a rather prim way, as they play their frustrated oil and water would-be lover roles without even touching or expressing any love except through quiet sighs (a restrained a romance as there ever was in a movie). The high-minded thespians act as if they were making a primer for other less fortunate actors. They are good, but it looked too much like acting to be great.


REVIEWED ON 4/23/2005 GRADE: B –