People have increasingly wondered about the United Nation’s usefulness for resolving international conflicts, and since the attacks of 9/11 also took place in New York City, it makes sense that the UN should provide the setting for the late Sydney Pollack’s thoughtful thriller The Interpreter. If one can stand the idea of people profiting by exploiting the drama of that day, the cinema does seem appropriate if only because terrorists use the same explosive effects to get our attention that moviemakers do. The difficulty is getting anyone to care about the human price involved, and with the cinematic tendency to unleash thousands of fireballs and movie extras getting blown to tiny pieces for fun and chills, one can find unexpected resonance in this film’s attempts to understand the human motivations underlying a plot to assassinate a corrupt African dictator when visiting New York.
Aside from the political ramifications, The Interpreter is a straightforward Hitchcockian thriller about an ice-blond African Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) returning to her interpreting booth in the UN late at night and accidentally overhearing through her headphones someone whisper “The teacher will never leave this room alive” in an obscure African language. Since the “teacher” could well be Edmund Zuwane, the much-hated and murderous ruler of the fictional country “Matobo” (which seems to be patterned off of Rwanda), Sylvia reports what she overheard to the police.
Sean Penn then shows up as the slightly rumpled and moody Tobin Keller, FBI agent, to investigate Sylvia’s allegations (though he doesn’t believe her at first). Before long, Sylvia finds herself driving around on her moped and wondering if everyone she sees is a government agent spying on her or a terrorist intent upon her death. With films like The Stepford Wives to live down, Kidman probably chose this role for its intelligence and its audacity. Her character not only translates, she also brazenly confronts the politicians of Africa about their crimes. Perhaps because of this, the director, Sydney Pollack is very chaste in his treatment of her beauty. After nearly getting blown up on a bus, her face finally gets some color in the form of a light scattering of blood, but the gradual revelations of her African background matter more. Tobin Keller learns that most of her family was killed by landmines back in Matobo, and so he wonders how much she may be involved in the assassination plot.
Meanwhile, Sean Penn’s character has his issues too, since his former wife recently died in a car crash. Fresh after receiving a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Mystic River, Penn acts a bit like Peter Falk as Columbo but with more Method technique in the way he scrunches up his face, looks down, and confides in Sylvia in order to earn her trust. They share a kind of distant romantic scene where he talks her to sleep on their cell phones as he watches her apartment from his stakeout across the street. Their relationship is all acting nuance and restraint since they are mostly united by the grief and rage that come from the death of a family member.
With echoes of the original Manchurian Candidate, the film builds to a climactic ballet of security forces trying to protect the visiting dictator: FBI snipers run to their rooflines, helicopters escort a line of black Mercedes across a bridge, and secret service men are everywhere trying to spot the killer. In many ways just a traditional political thriller with a so-so ending, The Interpreter still intrigued me by its adult tone and its willingness to explore the after-effects of violence. Sylvia took the job in the UN because she found she preferred the human voice to the sound of gunfire as a means towards a political solution, but when it comes to the loss of her family, she remains conflicted. As she says at one point, “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.” Yet, the film demonstrates how hard it is for grief to accept anything less.