Late one night, Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), a United Nations translator, returns to her booth high above the floor of the General Assembly, to retrieve a bag she left behind. She overhears two men talking about an assassination plot involving the genocidal dictatorial leader of Mobatu, a small African country. The next day, she learns that this same leader is coming to the UN to address the General Assembly on Friday. She reports what she heard and Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) are the Secret Service agents assigned to the case. At first, Silvia assumes that she is going to be protected; she thinks that the men having the conversation may have seen her. But Keller soon explains that it is the Secret Service's job to protect the foreign dignitary in question. Not her.
So begins "The Interpreter", the new film from Sydney Pollack. Pollack is the director behind such films as "Out Of Africa", "Three Days of The Condor" and "The Firm". It is one of his better films, but still lacks a few elements to help it join "Condor" in the top tier of great movie thrillers.
Actually, the film begins in Mobatu. It is almost eerie how closely this scene resembles some of the recent headlines out of Iraq. This memorable prologue helps to quickly and efficiently establish the people and place the remainder of the film is about.
Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn are both great. Kidman plays Broome, a woman who grew up in the small country of Mobatu and then lived in a number of European countries, making her a perfect candidate for a UN interpreter. At one point, Keller says `she is the UN' referring to her training and upbringing. Throughout the story, Kidman walks a fine line, balancing opposing parts of her character, which is quickly called into question. Keller has trouble believing that she overheard two people, late at night, talking into a microphone, on the floor of the General Assembly, in a language that only Silvia and a handful of others understand, talking about the assassination. As he digs further into her background and motivations, Kidman walks a fine line between victim and instigator, diplomat and revolutionary, helpless and in charge. These shades of her character are revealed gradually, as her back-story unfolds, lending a subtlety to the performance. Also, the film occasionally backtracks, as Keller's investigation proceeds, and Broome's character changes even further. The character and the performance are equally complex, adding great depth to the story.
Penn plays Keller, a by-the-book agent for the Secret Service who has just returned from leave. He is experiencing some troubles in his life and his boss (Sydney Pollack, in a cameo) isn't sure he is ready to return to work. Preferring to stay busy, he wants to be out of his apartment as much as possible, going so far as to sleep on the couch of his office. The interesting thing about this character is that Keller is experiencing the same sort of feelings Broome has experienced many times in her life. In one of their conversations, she reveals how the people of Mobatu deal with similar problems and this seems to give Keller a degree of comfort.
Thankfully, the filmmakers shied away from making these two characters lovers. Keller does bond with her, but he simply wants to protect her and figure this whole puzzle out. Naturally, Broome is drawn to Keller, but only because he is her protector. It is a relationship of convenience and provides some interesting conversations.
Catherine Keener's Dot Woods is a memorable sidekick. Keller's partner, she is the equivalent of the comic relief character that all agents of the FBI, DEA, Police department, etc. have in films. But Keener's character is more intelligent, her remarks are more deeply observed and she doesn't live to provide comic relief. Woods is the longtime partner of Keller, it almost seems as though they can read each other's thoughts, and she knows a lot about him and his problems. This knowledge is what leads to her `witty remarks' and they also help us to learn more about each character.
All of Sydney Pollack's films are created with the highest quality craftsmanship. They look great, the editing is superb, and the locations are real and believable. These films are crafted with skill and love by people who love to make films. "The Interpreter" is no exception. The fact that Pollack was granted access to film within the UN speaks volumes. Hitchcock didn't get this when he was making "North By Northwest". This adds an element of authenticity and interest to the story, especially when Keller and Woods uncover security problems within the institution. Why would the UN allow a story about security breeches to be filmed within it's walls? Of course, the story is fictional, and I strongly doubt all of it would be as easy as it seems, but it seems a bit strange.
The film contains a terrific set piece, more or less halfway through, which serves to ratchet up the suspense a couple of notches. As we watch this scene unfold, we believe that it could happen, because all of the elements leading up to it have been planted throughout.
One complaint is that this is the highpoint of the film, and it happens too early. The final showdown at the UN is good, but doesn't have the bang that the earlier scene does. These two scenes, and the scene at the beginning of the film, set in Mobatu, serve as bookends for the more dialogue heavy scenes. Because the middle scene is so good and the other two are more subdued, it makes the film seem slightly uneven.
My other complaint is that the pace, at times, could best be described as `languid'. In "Out of Africa", the pace works for the story. We watch the characters build a life on a coffee plantation in Africa. They work hard and when they are not working, they relax and talk. It adds a beautiful element to this outstanding romance. In "The Interpreter", a thriller, the same pace slows things down considerably. Shaving ten minutes out of the running time might have improved the pace of the film considerably, and improved the film as a whole.
All in all, "The Interpreter" is the type of intelligent, though-provoking thriller that adults crave. If only it had delivered a little more bang for the buck.