The movie opens with a prologue set in an abandoned stadium somewhere in Africa; it's the kind of third world location that seems vaguely familiar to us. We've seen something like it in news reels, the location of atrocities by Taliban in years past and most recently New Orleans. A photographer is left outside the stadium in the car as two men go inside to bear witness to a grim sight. In the next gut wrenching moments we're face to face with a real world tragedy of modern Africa in its gun toting children coldly committing murder for a tyrannical dictator. The opening scene establishes a very real threat reminiscent of Hotel Rwanda, but soon that threat will seem far removed as the rest of the film shifts to New York City and will take on a sombre, slower pacing that will never match the opening scene that reeled us in.
It takes a certain skill to follow and keep up with densely woven political thrillers like Interpreter. I love the classics of this genre of political intrigue and suspense; movies like Manchurian Candidate and Osterman Weekend are easy favourites. I must confess I have a hard time keeping up with every character and plot twist in the average James Bond movie to adequately judge whether or not every sequence of the Interpreter's complex plot was plausible. But what I liked about this movie is that it seemed plausible and Sydney Pollack stays true to the suspenseful thriller and doesn't choose to degenerate it into an action film. There will be nobody hanging from helicopters to perform a daring rescue in this movie. The emphasis in the Interpreter is where it should be, on the characters and their situation that evolves as the film progresses.
The film stars Nicole Kidman as Silvia Broome an interpreter at the UN in New York City, an ex-pat from the fictional African nation of Matobo who can speak a variety of languages used in her native country. One night she overhears what she later determines might be a plot to assassinate Matobo's brutal dictator named Edmund Zuwanie a.k.a “The Teacher” once a liberator of the nation of Matobo now has a reputation for policies of genocide, shades of the real world Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Unfortunately for Broome she might have been identified by the assassins to-be giving us the source for much of the suspense to follow. Since Zuwanie is scheduled to appear before the UN to defend his policies the secret service takes Broome's report of the plot against Zurwanie very seriously and assigns a team to investigate and keep Zurwanie alive.
Sean Penn is a secret service agent named Tobin Keller, assigned to the case after Broome reports the death threat of Zurwanie. Penn is an actor at the top of his craft and Pollack lets him navigate Keller's introduction scene without words or explanation. It's a short scene clocking under a minute but it speaks volumes about the character, we get all the information we need from Penn's face as he downs another drink at a bar and then unplugs a juke box only to reboot it so he can change the song to melancholy Lyle Lovett tune. He listens to a recorded message of someone we can tell he cares about deeply and in his smile we can see that she is no longer available to him, we might assume they're separated. The sombre mood sets the tone of the rest of the movie that ratchets down the pacing from its brief but explosive prologue, enough to lose some of its audience who expected something a little more intense.
When Keller conducts his initial interviews of Silvia Broome he believes she's lying about what she overheard, although she wasn't lying his instincts tell him there was more to her story than she was prepared to reveal. A lesser movie would have indulged in a romance between the two leads but this movie indulges in something far more complex between these Oscar winning actors. Both characters share similar tragedies in their lives that touch each other on an emotional level. The energy that brews between Kidman and Penn never distracts from the thriller, in fact it's thankfully played so understated that it might even wrongly be interpreted as a miscasting or bad chemistry between them. That there is no chemistry between them is what makes this a better movie than one that would have them engage in the obligatory romp. The complex relationship between Keller and Broome gives the story an extra appendage that only compliments the meat of the thriller.
Keller, the American agent is unashamed of his desire for revenge against the cause of tragedy in his life. But Broome tells him: “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.” Thus she presents an alternative way of looking at issues of grief and revenge, one that emanates from her exotic, fictional culture. She goes on to tell him a strange story about a native Matoban custom for dealing the murderer of a loved one. Kidman does a good South African accent which apparently gives her, a white girl, license to play an African national with personal involvement in its politics. Kidman plays Broome like a scared girl through much of the film, lots of wide eyes which are always easy to view. Penn has a calm and contemplative demeanour and through much of the first half of the film it's as if he tries to stare his way to the truth that seems just beneath Broome's surface. I applaud the movie for never giving us obligatory romps in bed or machine-gun action sequences. Although there are close brushes with death by the main characters and the film does have its share of casualties, nobody ever does anything super-human or too out of step with logic for a cheap plot convenience. The characters dialogue is intelligent and as smart creatively written characters they act accordingly. However, if you're one who can't take a yarn of international espionage without at least one scene where a helicopter chases a bus through a subway tunnel or if a story involving a male and a female lead seems naked without the characters getting naked together in a hotel room; this isn't the movie for you.
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