The very quality that makes this new film from Sydney Pollack one of the better recent Hollywood thrillers — its braininess — also nearly does it in by the last reel. With a veritable roll call of talent both behind and in front of the camera, and the privilege of being the first film allowed to shoot within the walls of the United Nations, it’s a high-toned, high-minded, A-for-effort political mystery. It’s just good enough to remind you of the days of truly great paranoid thrillers like The Parallax View, Marathon Man or Pollack’s own Three Days of the Condor, even if it isn’t as vital, heart-stopping or human as any of them. And it’s far more convoluted.
The reason for shooting at the U.N., it seems, is not to strengthen international relations, reaffirm the necessity of the world’s peacekeeping organization or even to provide Kofi Annan with a bitchin’ cameo appearance. Rather, the filmmakers have gone inside the building’s hallowed halls to tell the tale of Sylvia (Nicole Kidman, doing her best Charlize Theron impersonation), a natty, young, African-raised flutist-interpreter. When stopping by the office one evening to pick up her flute, she becomes privy to a conversation regarding the imminent assassination of a much-reviled leader of the ethnically divided African nation Matobo (don’t check your globe, it’s completely fictional). This makes her the target of the assassins and the labyrinthine network of people behind them, as well as the U.S. Secret Service, as represented by gruff recent widower Tobin (Sean Penn) and his vaguely sapphic partner Dot (Catherine Keener, who provides the movie with its only moments of levity). Tobin isn’t convinced that the Vespa-riding Sylvia is as altruistic as she claims to be, and thus begins the cat-and-mouse surveillance game that makes up the bulk of the film.
Kidman can be mysterious when she’s playing, say, Virginia Woolf, but most of the time she exudes a sexy vulnerability, a wounded-bird quality that doesn’t quite jibe with this film’s often-menacing mood. Still, for the first hour or so, she and Penn are able to convey a convincing, bristly relationship that gradually gives way to attraction, if not full-blown romance. That’s the root of the problem with The Interpreter: It’s far too tasteful to sully its “important” political subtext with something as base as a sex scene, but it’s not above setting up a terrorist attempt in New York for a cheap thrill. Penn chokes back tears like no one else, and he shoulders the considerable burden of carrying the film’s entire emotional weight. But without him, the movie might be as cold and callous as Sahara, another recent flick that uses tragic events in Africa as a cheap plot device.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.