Reviewed by James Slone
Sydney Pollack’s slick new political thriller, The Interpreter, offers all the expected competence and efficiency. The writing, direction, performances and production values spin like a well oiled machine, distributing thrills, violence and simple moral lessons with all the precision of Swiss clockwork. It works on the level of entertainment, sometimes engaging and always agreeable. Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman are on board, and in one of the best examples of good taste in recent years, do not become romantically involved. The movie works well on the level of an exercise and should probably be excused for being generic and, no doubt due to the usual committee meddling, politically ambiguous.
The movie opens in the fictional African country of Matobo, standing in for Zimbabwe, where an authoritarian state under the thumb of Dr. Zuwanie, based on real life celebrity dictator Mugabe, has dragged the county into civil war and back again. Apparently the good doctor had the noblest intentions around 1980, screwed them up on a power high, and now has to contend with opponents on the left and the right. At the start of the film, some of these opponents are brutally murdered in a soccer stadium to the sound of generic southern African music, the film’s leitmotif. It might have been culled from a “Best of Africa” compilation.
From the stark foreboding prelude, the action moves to the United Nations in New York, where Silvia Broome (Kidman doing ‘vaguely accented foreigner’) works as an interpreter and happens to be a Matobo expatriate and the only American who can understand the language. One night she returns to her booth overlooking the general assembly to pick up some of her things and overhears a conversation over a microphone between two Matobans. Turns out they’ve entered into a conspiracy to assassinate Dr. Zuwanie when he enters the United States to deliver a controversial speech to the UN.
Once it becomes clear they know they’ve been overheard and might just want to put a hit on her as well, she decides to report the incident. She’s assigned a secret service agent, Tobin Keller (Penn in sad bastard mode), who is supposed to investigate her in the name of protecting Zuwanie but naturally becomes protective of her. At first he’s skeptical, since of course it’s suspicious that a interpreter would just happen to hear the rare language of her homeland and moreover in the whispered tones of international intrigue. But his wife has just died and this wouldn’t be Hollywood if Kidman didn’t become a surrogate wife for his protective impulses.
As Keller burrows deeper into Silvia’s past and the political climate of Matobo, new shadowy figures make their presence known and things become decidedly more dangerous and the suspense builds- that’s how these films are designed. Thankfully, the film delivers the cliches in a convincingly wrought package. Violence is tactically employed and carries some weight, as in a scene of devastating destruction on a public bus. And for the most part the story is convincingly plotted, hitting the expected beats without becoming too transparent. Keller’s investigation not only draws enemies like flies but also reveals an intriguingly duplicitous and complicated Silvia.
Kidman and Penn’s relationship feels natural, suspicion and hostility melting before genuine platonic feelings, and despite the tired “dead wife” shtick, is poignant enough on its own to carry the film. There are a few other interesting one-note characters, most notably Keller’s partner Dot (played dryly by Catherine Keener), a capitalist opponent of Zuwanie, Kuman-Kuman, (George Harris stealing the show), and a photographer who witnessed the murder the film opens with, Philippe (Yvan Attal). But this is definitely the stars’ show and the camera is completely in love with them.
Penn basically plays the same character he’s been playing for the last ten years- one wonders if his entire acting method revolves around locating the degree of misery and despondency his characters are in and then draping their pathos in tweed jackets. Kidman has the better, more complicated role, alternately damsel in distress and deceptive, radical politico- her dual nature and Penn’s ambivalence makes the movie work despite its blatant methodology. As the film moves forward, the idealistic internationalist Silvia is revealed to have her own stake in the game, which brings us to the film’s problematic politics.
Here we have another example of Hollywood’s Africa problem. If the film sought to be contentious it has failed, and much of its failure stems from making its African country a fabrication. Yes, it’s loosely based on Zimbabwe, but then why not just make it Zimbabwe? Besides the problems inherent in presenting a real life dictator in a work of fiction, there are also the problems inherent in having a point of view on something that actually exists. Matobo is a pseudo-Africa where all the continent’s problems, corrupt political bosses, starvation, disease, corruption, civil war, etc, can happen without any reference to the responsible or accountable.
There is also the salient fact that Kidman plays woman from a family of white farmers, which in the real-life Zimbabwe would be a very contentious thing indeed. But the film makes nothing of the fact, instead presenting a whitewashed (literally!) view of southern Africa where whites and blacks fight for socialism and democracy together, hand in hand. In fact, there are no major African or black characters in this film. But then one wonders if the film would have the box office draw with an black African woman in Kidman’s role. Probably not. Africa needs to be sexy before we can discuss it seriously in America. Our conception of the continent can best be summed up in the lyrics of the Toto song named after it.
Of course the film cares about the plight of Africa, but like Sahara, never finds a suitable way to fit its left-liberal concerns into a commercial suspense drama. As long as it keeps moving and focuses on the central relationship, it’s a lean slice of competent film making- what else could we expect from an old studio hand like Pollack? But as with most “political thrillers,” the only thing politically astute about it is the way it politically avoids talking about anything. It delivers the thrills but drops the message.