Directed by: Sydney Pollack
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, Jesper Christenson, Earl Cameron, Sydney Pollack
Thirty years ago, Sydney Pollack made a critical and commercial hit with Three Days of the Condor, a tight adaptation of James Grady's novel Six Days of the Condor (so tight, you see, that they had to shave off three days). This political thriller worked because Pollack remembered that it was a thriller first and political second. With The Interpreter, Pollack misses the bull's eye precisely because he and his battery of no less than five writers reversed the mix.
The result is a pretty good movie that might have been a terrific thriller, if it wasn't so concerned about being more than a mere thriller.
There's a double irony here. Three Days of the Condor, with its scenario involving a U.S. plan to invade the Middle East on trumped-up reasons to get control of the region's oil, is actually more political than the story in The Interpreter, while The Interpreter's basic set-up is far more outrageously in thriller mode than Condor's was. Just how likely is it that United Nations interpreter Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) would wander back into U.N. headquarters after hours, at just the right moment to pick up her headphones and overhear what appears to be an assassination plot -- delivered in an obscure tribal dialect that she understands -- against a genocidal African president? This is the stuff of wilder and woolier thrillers, not serious political films!
Moreover, the film's credibility is also undermined by Pollack's bizarre insistence on giving himself an onscreen role. Despite the fact that the man's been used as a performer by both Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen, I've never thought acting was his forte, and while this Hitchcockian business of appearing in his own films might amuse Pollack, it's detrimental to the films. Pollack's overall approach to film is fairly realistic -- a very mainstream attitude that's primarily concerned with suspending the viewer's disbelief and telling a story. There's nothing conscious about his style, which is to say that it doesn't draw attention to itself as filmmaking and it's about as far from stylized as you can get. So Pollack's sudden intrusion onscreen is a distraction that pulls the viewer right out of the story.
What raises The Interpreter a bit above its miscalculations are the performances of lead actors Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn and Pollack's undeniable craftsmanship, even if his director/producer status ultimately suggests that the film's flaws can also be laid at his feet. The movie starts off nicely with a sequence involving characters we won't know until much later in the film. They're taken to a decaying soccer stadium in the film's fictional African country of Matoba, where they find a roomful of bodies -- apparent victims of President Zuwanie (Earl Cameron, Cuba).
The move to New York and the film's set-up at the U.N. are reasonably done, and the film works up to the point that we meet Agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn). At that moment, the thriller aspect gets shoved to one side in favor of what passes for deep characterization, with Keller in obsessive mourning for his late wife.
This story line would work better if we were told less than we are, since the script makes Keller into a primo specimen of the sucker-sapien by giving him a dead wife who, it transpires, was prone to dumping him for other men, only to return to him at some later point. This is the sort of thing that only works (if it can work at all) if there's some basis for understanding why Keller was content with his doormat status, but that's never even hinted at in this film.
Fortunately, the chemistry that develops between Penn and Kidman overcomes most of the problems here. Even better is the characterization of Catherine Keener (Lovely and Amazing) as Agent Dot Woods, Keller's dry-witted partner ("That's just rude," she remarks upon finding a bomb hooked to a light switch), who is subtly sketched as probably being in love with Keller, while Keller hasn't a clue. It's never stressed, but, unlike most of the movie's attempts at being weighty, this element actually adds some gravity to the proceedings.
There are also a handful of exceptional scenes -- most notably a bus sequence comparable to the one in Hitchcock's Sabotage -- that actually work on a thriller basis and demonstrate what an efficient and effective filmmaker Pollack can be when he's at his best. The revelations of Silvia's past are well-handled and actually believable. However, the film's climax, while effective up to a point, fails to convince. Suffice it to say that Silvia makes one character do something that's just downright embarrassing (recalling the bit in The Seventh Victim where Tom Conway improbably shames a roomful of Satanists by reciting "The Lord's Prayer"), and that a huge illegality is preposterously brushed off with one line of dialogue and a remarkably light comeuppance.
In the end, The Interpreter is a thriller with too few thrills that's made palatable by the performances and a handful of sequences. Worth seeing, yes, but only with dimished expectations. Rated PG-13 for violence, some sexual content and brief strong language.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke