Interpreter, The (2005): Pollack’s Political Thriller, Starring Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman

The political thriller, The Interpreter, represents a comeback of sorts for vet director Sydney Pollack after stumbling with two failures in a row, the unnecessary remake Sabrina, with Harrison Ford and the miscast Julia Ormond, and the romantic drama, Random Harvest, projects that have wasted his considerable talent.

Most thrillers of the past decade have been psychosexual, in the vein of Jagged Edge and Fatal Attraction (both starring Glenn Close), the two 1980s films that launched a cycle of thrillers. Unfortunately, young director, perhaps in desperation to grab audiences, have merged conventions of the suspense thriller with those of the horror film, damaging both genres in the process.

Freshly and shrewdly, Pollack brings global politics and socially relevant issues, such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, international terrorism, and places them at the center of a movie that benefits immensely from its distinctive locale: The United Nations.

A mature, intelligent film (even when it strays in logic and credibility), The Interpreter has a tightly woven story that gets increasingly more suspenseful, and two strong, fully fleshed characters, played by Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. As such, the film is an anomaly in the current landscape: The story takes its time to build tension and to revealing crucial details about its central persona, both of which begin as enigmas.

The first film to be shot within the U.N., The Interpreter benefits from the specificity and authenticity of its setting. About half of the tale takes place within the quarters of the famous building, which, though located at the heart of Manhattan, is officially international territory. The spaces internationality becomes an important plot point in the course of the film. Among other rewards, viewers (even those who have taken official tours) are treated to an inside and detailed look of the General Assembly, the conference halls, the long corridors, the courtyard.

Representing an old-fashioned thriller, in the positive sense of the word, The Interpreter continues and builds upon the tradition of 1970s thrillers, particularly what could be described as the paranoia cycle, which saw among others, such great films as Pollacks own Three Days of the Condor, and Alan Pakulas The Parallax View.

Hooking the audience right away, the pre-credits sequence is terrific. Three men, two white, one black, are driving to a secretive place, in which two of them shockingly observe rows of brutally-shot and rotting corpses. As they are about to leave these caves, an African boy shoots them. The third man, a photographer, who was left behind in the car, somehow escapes after snapping pictures of the cold-blooded killing.

After the credits, the action switches to a U.N. session thats translated by a young blonde woman named Sylvia Broome (Kidman). A precautionary evacuation, in which all of the U.N. personnel are asked to vacate the space, follows, and Sylvia leaves behind her personal bag with a flute. Later than night, she goes back to retrieve it. While there, Sylvia overhears a death threat against an African head of state, Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), spoken in a rare dialect that few people other than Sylvia can understand. Zuwanie is about to give a speech at the U.N., which calls for a major security effort, involving different agencies.

Sylvia hears just one sentence, The teacher will never leave this room alive, and that sentence serves as the premise for thriller, in which Sylvias life is turned upside down as she becomes a witness and a hunted target of some mysterious killers.

Enter federal agent Tobin Keller (Penn), whos assigned to the case. In his first scene, which shows Keller in a pub drinking, he comes across as a disturbed and morose man. Highly devoted to his work, hes in close touch with his tough, matter-of-fact partner Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) and small group of guards. They form a surrogate family, since they spend most of their days and night together.

Sylvia and Keller are off to a bad start, when hes suspicious of her testimony and treats her as a liar. Keller begins to dig deeper and deeper into his eyewitness past and her secretive world of life in Africa and global connections. The more he finds out, the more suspicious he becomes that Sylvia herself might be involved in the conspiracy. With every step of the way, Keller finds more reasons to mistrust Sylvia.

Unbeknownst to Sylvia, Keller and his entourage have been assigned to protect her, taking an apartment right across the street in which she lives. Can Tobin, who has hard time coping with his own pain, keep Sylvia safe For a thriller, The Interpreter may be too quiet and low-key, particularly in its central chapters, in which a tentative, ambiguous attraction evolves between Sylvia and Keller. The scenes in which Keller observes and spies on Sylvia, and the two engage in telephone conversations that get more and more intimate, are shot in a Hitchcockian way that recall his 1954 masterpiece, Rear Window.

It turns out that African-born Sylvia has come to the U.S. to accomplish a mission thats both personal and political (the details of which cannot be revealed here). Gradually, we learn that the two things that Sylvia and Keller share in common are a sense of decency, and more importantly, a sense of loss. Both have lost their dear ones in painful circumstances and now experience hard time in coming to terms with their loss. Sylvias parents and her sister were killed in Africa, whereas Kellers wife was a victim of a car accident in Santa Fe.

Its to the credit of the screenwriters, Charles Randolph, Scott Fran, and Brian Ward (adapting Martin Stellmans and Brian Wardss story), that they create an intriguing situation, in which Sylvias past and present continue to be a mystery up to the last reel. Indeed, as soon as you think that Sylvia is a victim whose very life is in danger, new clues posit her as a suspect in the conspiracy.

Sylvia and Keller are vastly different characters, and the divergent acting styles of Kidman and Penn reinforce that aspect. Sylvias strengths seem to be words, quiet diplomacy, and the subtleties of meanings. In contrast, Tobin is all about instinct, action, and reading into the most primal human behaviors. As the danger of a major assassination on U.S. soil grows, and Sylvias life hangs in the balance, the duo play out a gripping dance of evasion and revelation that keeps them both guessing as they race to stop a terrifying international crisis before its too late.

At this juncture of his career, Penn can play credibly any type of role, and he brings to his new part a soulfully expressive look that conveys a man full of sorrow. A vastly skillful actress, Kidman excels too in a demanding role that calls for intense, often contradictory feelings. Holding the entire picture on her beautiful shoulders, Kidman renders an alert and intelligent performance that draws on her beauty as well as dramatic chops. In the current Hollywood scene, Kidman is one of the few genuine stars that fearlessly tackle risky roles, demonstrating a wide range and chameleon-like quality that enable her to navigate smoothly between small art films and big Hollywood pictures.

Though neatly and tightly plotted, The Interpreter is marred by a weak and unconvincing last reel, in which Sylvia confronts Zuwanie, who incredulously is left alone in the room! Threatening to take the law into her hands and kill him in retaliation against all the crimes he had committed, Sylvia forces the leader to revisit his idealistic past and all the promises he has made to democratize the country. Keller, by now in love with Sylvia, invades the booth and threatens her with a gun in a scene that recalls Tarantino and cheapens the otherwise smart and intelligent film.

Its also in this sequence that The Interpreter wears its liberal-democratic ideology on its sleeves, preaching rather naively, in terms of everything that was shown before, for a peaceful diplomacy and greater understanding between nations.

Pollack, a good commercial Hollywood director, shows his penchant for elaborate and nuanced mise-en-scene in a number of sequences. He stages a bravura scene, in which again, rather incredibly, Sylvia, a number of suspect-criminals, and several of Kellers security guards are riding the same bus.

And the next to last sequence, which begins with the arrival of Zuwanie in the U.S. and continues through the preparations for his speech in the U.N. is also masterly and suspensefully orchestrated with fast pacing and parallel montages greatly assisted by editor William Steinkamp.

The Interpreter offers the pleasure of style with top-notch production values. Collaborating with Pollack in capturing the unique world of global diplomacy are ace cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, Panic Room) and production designer Jon Hutman). The films only weak technical aspect is James Newton Howards disappointing score, which is too conventional for such a thriller.

To play it safely, the films country in trouble is named Matobo (standing in for Zimbabwe), and the language spoken is Ku, which was created specifically for the movie.

The Interpreter is not sit-on-the-edge, pulse-quickening thriller, and there are a number of expository scenes that may be necessary but also slow down considerably the proceedings at the wrong time in the story. Though the film is not really scary (which may be a problem for young and impatient viewers), it should be praised for seldom relying on the genres cheap tricks. Pollack (who also plays a cameo role) should be congratulated for making a smart, intelligent, and timely film with distinctively pungent issues and characters.