For some time I avoided "The Interpreter,"  which sadly was to be the final film directed by recently deceased Sydney Pollack. It received lukewarm reviews in the mass media (although Ebert liked it) and generally unappreciative commentary on IMDb. My avoidance turned out to be a mistake. I have since viewed the film several times on video and have admired it more with each viewing. Yes, the pacing is unusually slow for a political thriller. Yes, the relationship between the leads has a weird chemistry and does not end with the usual Hollywood romantic closure/cliché. Yes, the script is talky, very talky even. And, yes, the plot is hard to follow and has some large plausibility holes, particularly in the film's final sequence.
As it happens, though, only the last of these is truly a "weakness," and then mainly to those unfortunately literal-minded film viewers whose aesthetic pleasures are utterly ruined by "logical" inconsistencies in plot construction or resolution. Would the Secret Service, FBI, and U.N. security staff really leave a nearly assassinated leader of a foreign state unattended in a "safe room" immediately after the event? Certainly not, one hopes. But stranger things have "really" happened in the panic following actual assassinations in 20th century American history. Were that not so, the conspiracy theorists would have much less grist for their mills. Regardless, the flaw in logic just doesn't matter much, for the entire plot to assassinate President Zuwani, the dictatorial and ruthless head of Matobo, a fictional African state, is not only a "con" as one of the FBI officials gathers early on in the investigation, it is also a perfect example of a Hitchcockian Maguffin.
Unlike more intellectually simplistic political thrillers, including Pollack's own genre classic "Three Days of the Condor," "The Interpreter" isn't ultimately about the surface subject of its main plot. The plan to assassinate Zuwanie while he delivers a self-exculpatory speech at the U.N. i.e. what Silvia Broome hears, or claims to have heard, whispered in Ku on a darkened General Assembly floor is as much what "The Interpreter" is about as "Psycho" is about the theft of $40,000 or "Casablanca" is about the missing letters of transit signed (with ridiculous implausibility) by General De Gaulle.
What "The Interpreter" is about instead is a rich complex of issues that surround and emerge from the working out of its convoluted plot. Very interestingly, it is about the politics of revolution and betrayal in contemporary Africa (taking its main cue from the horrors in Zimbabwe). It is also about the importance of language and communication in a world where children are armed with AK-47s. The film explores the linguistic workings of the U.N. in loving detail and even takes the time to invent and employ a made-up language (the aforementioned "Ku," which Silvia Broome interprets along with uninvented and un-subtitled French). A key witness in the investigation speaks only Portuguese. Moreover the film's climax, comes not with the expected death of Zuwanie but with his having to read - and choke on - the powerful and inspirational words he wrote before he became like the monsters he beheld. In the next to last scene we hear Silvia's voice-over naming Zuwanie's victims as recorded in detail in her dead brother's notebooks, thereby illustrating another unique power of language: bearing historical witness to atrocity. Most of all, "The Interpreter" is about two characters, Nicole Kidman as U.N. interpreter and Matoban ex-patriot Silvia Broome and Sean Penn as Secret Service agent Tobin Keller, wounded by violence done to loved ones and helping each other resist the desire to subject others or themselves to further violence, "a lazy form of grief" as it is defined in one of the film's many memorable phrases.
Supported by the wonderful Catherine Keener as Keller's torch-carrying partner and Pollack himself as the chief of the Secret Service, Kidman and Penn, two of the finest actors of their generation, offer up their usual first-rate performances here, carrying off five scenes of extended dialog wherein they explore each other's hidden facets and discuss such unlikely but arresting topics as the Ku form of justice and whether wanting someone "gone" is or is not the verbal equivalent of wanting him or her "dead." Personally, I'll take such interruptions in the flow of action over the requisite car chase and explosion scenes any day although the film does have its own interesting versions of the latter as well. All in all, "The Interpreter" is a film that has been seriously underrated and deserves a look from those who appreciate textured screen writing and subtle acting and who, like me, may have been put off by the film's original reception.
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