There aren’t many active filmmakers of significance who have turned out marketable work over five decades. Sydney Pollack is a member of that select association though the mere act of sticking around this long probably has come to lend his career a degree of undeserved luster. After all, he has made fewer than twenty motion pictures and his reputation rests almost entirely on five of them: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (’69), The Way We Were (’73), Three Days of the Condor (’75), Tootsie (’82) and Out of Africa (’85).
The fact that only one of these is a political thriller and that none were made in the past two decades gives you some idea as to what you can expect from the director’s latest. The Interpreter is a serviceable, craftsmanlike tale of intrigue which two of the world’s most talented actors are unable to make into anything more.
Nicole Kidman plays a U.N interpreter who was raised in the fictional South African country of Matobo. The leader of that country is a liberator-turned-genocidal dictator who’s scheduled to speak before the General Assembly in a matter of days. As fate would have it, she returns to her booth to retrieve some possessions one evening after the U.N. had been evacuated due to a possible security threat. Her headphones are still live and she walks in just in time to overhear a whispered threat to someone’s life over them. She surmises that the threat is to the reviled dictator’s life and reports it to the authorities.
Sean Penn costars as a Secret Service agent responsible for determining whether Kidman can be trusted. It’s one of the more generic roles the performer has taken on: His character is world weary, a heavy drinker and recovering from the recent death of his wife. He’s world weary more than most movie law enforcement officers because she didn’t just die in a car accident; she died in a car accident beside the guy with whom she was having an affair.
Kidman’s character has his beat for back story overload though. Just a few of the reasons some in the government can’t decide whether to believe her or not: a. She grew up in Matobo during the transitional years when the country’s leader was shifting his focus from saving his people to slaughtering them; b. Most of her family was blown up by one of the guy’s landmines; c. People keep coming up with old photographs of her taking part in anti-government rallies and marching with a machine gun; d. Her brother may or may not be involved in a plot against the tyrant; e. Really, what are the odds of someone picking up a pair of headphones just in time to overhear a whispered death threat?
While the United States government is busy trying to ascertain the credibility of Kidman’s character, all sorts of dastardly types go about the business of wreaking political thriller havoc under the radar. A man wearing an African mask appears at night outside Kidman’s apartment window. Another sinister individual goes around planting bombs, one of them in the vicinity of the despot’s leading rival who is living in exile in New York. Another plants parts for a makeshift rifle inside the U.N. because getting into the building with a weapon would be impossible. And then there’s the dictator’s white head of security who arrives ahead of him to make arrangements for his safety. He works closely with Penn over a period of days and Penn’s Secret Service agent is supposed to be an exceedingly good judge of character. So it’s surprising he’s still having second thoughts about Kidman when anyone in the audience can see this is somebody he should be worried about. The guy might as well be played by Alan Rickman or David Warner, he’s such an obvious snake in the grass.
Before I bring an even graver lapse in logic to your attention, let me point out that The Interpreter is engaging, well-acted, periodically exciting and refreshingly grown up stuff. Not a great movie but a nice time and a welcome break from the season’s nonstop torrent of interchangeable horror films and Ashton Kutcher comedies.
That said, another draft or two of the script could only have helped. A few more scenes like the white knuckler set on a city bus and two or three fewer speeches detailing quaint African customs from Kidman’s character and we might have wound up a little closer to Condor territory. And then there’s the major incongruity which undermines Pollack’s final act. Remember how the U.N. was evacuated as a precaution at the start of the film? That was after a metal detector was found to be on the fritz. Throughout the climactic sequence of The Interpreter, a world leader and an assassin are in the General Assembly Hall at the same time and the Secret Service knows it but nobody even suggests getting everyone out of there.
Unfortunately for the viewer, Pollack’s handful of missteps translates into a moviegoing experience that’s less than it might have been.