Judge Ian Visser worked briefly as an interpreter at the UN, until that embarrassing episode with the ambassador from Burkina Faso.
"You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth."—Tobin Keller (Sean Penn)
A top-drawer assembly of Hollywood talent comes together for a political thriller that is grand in both scope and scale. Does its pedigree match its ambition?
Facts of the Case
Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman, Cold Mountain) is an English interpreter at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. During an ordinary day at work, a security issue forces the building to be evacuated. Returning at night to retrieve her bag, Silvia overhears a conversation discussing the assassination of a visiting dignitary.
Fleeing the building, Silvia doesn't report the incident until the following day, when a car comes awfully close to running her down. She subsequently learns the dignitary being discussed was Edmond Zuwanie, president of the very country that Silvia was born and lived in for most of her life.
Edmond Zuwanie (Earl Cameron, Revelation) came to power in a revolution, promising to restore the glory of his country, Matobo, after years of corruption and murder. Unfortunately, the United Nations now accuses the leader of genocide against his enemies and wants to try Zuwanie on his human rights record. Zuwanie is due to give a speech to the General Assembly defending his actions, and the Secret Service is determined that he will stay alive while on American soil.
Enter Secret Service agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn, Mystic River) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener, Capote). As part of the Dignitary Protection Squad, the agents are assigned to investigate Silvia and determine if she overheard a credible threat. Keller is skeptical of the assassination plot and suspicious of Silvia. As he digs into Silvia's past, Keller begins to learn of her ties to Matobon politics and Zuwanie's opponents. Zuwanie's security man is also hanging about, plying Keller with information that seems to indicate that Silvia is no mere interpreter.
As the plot unfolds, Keller finds himself drawn to Silvia through a shared mutual loss. As the date of Zuwanie's speech approaches, Keller must discover if Silvia is what she claims, or if she is part of a conspiracy to change the course of history. But can he put aside his personal feelings in time to discover the truth?
Director Sydney Pollack certainly knows how to make a good picture. He has a long history in Hollywood, and has been responsible for hits including The Firm and Out of Africa, which won him an Academy Award for Best Director. Pollack also knows his way around a political thriller; his Three Days of the Condor perfectly captured the paranoia and cynicism of the 1970s. To be sure, The Interpreter is top-grade film-making, with an A-list cast, director, and production. Combining all these elements should, in theory, create a great experience.
Unfortunately, The Interpreter is a thriller with few thrills. Although the script tries to keep the audience guessing with various twists and surprise reveals, this is essentially a by-the-numbers effort that has managed to attract some significant talent.
Part of the problem is the sheer amount of plot involved. The movie practically groans from the constant introduction of characters, side-plots, double-crosses, and twists. I can't help but think that if the writers has stripped away some of the extraneous plot and stuck to the main thrust of the story, it would have allowed more room for focus on the assassination plot, and less on the complicated backstory that is used to explain the motivation of Kidman's character.
A great deal of time is dedicated to this history of Silvia, and to Keller's own personal issues. Their mutual pain is supposed to draw the pair closer and contribute to the debate about Zuwanie and his victims' need for revenge. A great deal of this seems fodder for a drama, not a thriller that depends on tension and a fast-moving plot to keep the audience in the game. Much of this material serves only to add weight to an already convoluted story, rather than provide motivations for the characters.
Both Kidman and Penn do decent work with their characters, but this material is below both of their abilities, especially considering their recent Oscar-winning efforts. For the most part, both actors seem to be trying to add more to their thinly-drawn characters than really exists (especially Penn, whose role borders dangerously on stereotypical). Worst of all, Catherine Keener is wasted in her role Keller's partner, getting neither the lines nor the screen time she deserves.
The Interpreter is presented with a fantastic wide-screen anamorphic transfer. As one would expect from a recent release, the image is near-flawless, with a sharp picture and no sign of edge enhancement. Audio is also top-notch, the dialogue track being well-balanced with the occasional explosion or burst of gunfire.
Special features included on the disc are pretty impressive. We get three deleted scenes and an alternative ending , as well as featurettes on actual UN interpreters, filming inside the UN (this was the first production to gain access), and a making-of with Sydney Pollack. These are all good pieces, and go well beyond the usual studio fluff.
We also get a director's commentary with Sydney Pollack. Pollack can be very informative and conveys a lot about what he was trying to achieve, but there are also a number of dead spots in his commentary. It's a good effort, but it would have been nice to hear more specifics in addition his ideas about the story and plot.
Another interesting feature on the disc is a piece called "Interpreting Pan and Scan vs. Widescreen with Pollack." This is a short interview/presentation by Pollack, in which he explains how he stopped making widescreen pictures when television began buying and cropping movies to the pan-and-scan format. Pollack asserts he made the change from wide-screen to the 4:3 format to prevent his vision from being altered for television, and that he is now back to shooting in widescreen again, thanks to the advent of the DVD format. Pollack also makes a plea for audiences to accept the widescreen format, going so far as to demonstrate the differences in individual shots and frames. Frankly, I'd like to see this feature attached to every fullscreen DVD release, but if it changes one or two minds as it is, it's still progress.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In spite of the film's flaws, credit Pollack for making use of his resources. The shots from inside the actual United Nations buildings are impressive and add the kind of realism that probably couldn't be achieved otherwise. The viewer will also learn plenty of tidbits about the UN, its security procedures, and about the Secret Service. Most of this information is so well integrated into the story that it is conveyed in a very natural sense, and it's a credit to the writers that they don't bash you over the head with a police procedural.
The Interpreter is weighted down with too much plot and exposition to get off the ground as a political thriller. Viewers wanting something with more of a rush should try 2004's Spartan, or the recent The Constant Gardener, which also touches on similar themes.
The court regretfully enters a judgment of Guilty.
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