The Interpreter (8/10)

by Tony Medley

In the tradition of his classics like “Three Days of the Condor” (1975) and “The Firm” (1993), Sidney Pollack’s “The Interpreter” is a well-paced thriller, even if the Hitchcockian plot is glaringly thin and fails the sniff test. Three people received writing credits and probably dozens more contributed, but they needed at least one more because what they decided on is insubstantial.

And that’s unfortunate, because this is a well-acted, superbly directed, movie. U.N. African interpreter Sylvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) overhears what sounds like an assassination plot against the brutal leader of her African homeland. Skeptical federal agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) is brought in to determine if Sylvia is telling the truth and to prevent any assassination.

There is one stretch of approximately 20 minutes in the middle of the film in which Sylvia leaves her apartment and gets on a bus that has mesmerizing tension, thanks in large measure to James Newton Howard’s tension-enhancing music.

The United Nations location is another plus for this film. Nobody before this was ever allowed to film inside the United Nations. Even Alfred Hitchcock was denied access, forcing him to build a United Nations set in Hollywood for “North by Northwest” (1959). Shooting inside the General Assembly Pollack captured the mélange of colors, accents and high human hopes by hiring 1,200 extras, in both tailored suits and native dress, to fill the room. Even some of the General Assembly’s real members asked to be involved. Given full access to the U.N. from the Security Council’s chambers to the Rose Garden for nearly five months, the only restriction Pollack was given was that filming take place after hours and on weekends so as not to interrupt the U.N.’s normal work.

Weak as the script is, it does contain some pretty good lines, like “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.” At least I liked it (the line, not the script). There just didn’t seem to me to be any reason why people would be trying to scare or kill Sylvia. She overheard the threat and reported it. Why kill her? That would be an extraneous risk that would validate her dubious claim by itself. But I guess Pollack got tired of trying to find a writer who could come up with a good reason why they were after her and just went with what he had, which is pretty lame. Oh, well, forget logic and just sit back and enjoy the chase, which is scintillating even if it is without a good reason.

The acting is uniformly good. Sean Penn has apparently learned that he should not try to cry onscreen. He has a role in which he is mourning throughout and he looks sad. He does that OK. Mercifully we are not subjected to the laughable tearless wailing he gave us in “Mystic River” (2003). Without his pathetic attempts to cry on cue, Penn is almost as good as Kidman, who could be becoming one of the best actresses around.

April 21, 2005