“The Interpreter”, directed by Sydney Pollack, is a very smart political thriller. Critics have called it an “old fashioned” movie and that it is an “old school” political thriller in the vein of a “Manchurian Candidate”. This is meant as a compliment and high praise. Being called old fashioned may not seem like a positive thing these days, but when talking about “The Interpreter” the critics are saying that this is a well crafted, well written, well acted film which pays attention to building a believable story where the tension builds and builds. It all means something and has a point, rather than the flashy style without substance that many of today’s films seem to be using.
Sylvia Broone (Nicole Kidman) is an interpreter for the United Nations. She is a white African from the fictional nation of Motobo. Having to return to the UN late one night to retrieve a bag she left in her booth, she overhears a conversation in the language of Motobo. Before she believes she is spotted, she hears a whispered discussion talking about an assassination. She doesn’t at first know who the plot is against, but later realizes that the plotters are talking about assassinating the leader of her native Motobo. When she reports the threat to her superiors, the United States Secret Service is brought in to protect the leader of Motobo when he arrives at the UN. The agent in charge of this investigation is Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), a man dealing with his own pain even as Sylvia seeks to hide her past for reasons she won’t reveal.
It builds. Little by little Sydney Pollack gives the viewer a deeper glimpse into the world of Sylvia Broone and who she is. Keller is suspicious of anything he doesn’t understand and Broone does appear to be hiding something. Little by little we find out more of what is going on in this movie and the tension grows and grows. Younger filmmakers can learn something from Sydney Pollack. He doesn’t play all of his cards right away but gives enough that the audience remains engaged. Nothing in this movie is clear cut, and nothing is the way we initially perceive it to be. Pollack keeps us guessing long enough through the movie, but without insulting our intelligence by throwing swerve after swerve. Sure, there is a twist or two, but that much has to be expected.
It must be noted that this is the first film which was given permission to actually film within the United Nations Headquarters, and the UN itself feels like a character. Even Alfred Hitchcock was denied permission to film there. Pollack is respectful of the mission and the work of the UN while still expressing reservations about the shortcomings and shortsightedness of the organization.
“The Interpreter” is a very good movie, and a very smart movie. In a week where the other big movie is the remake of “The Amityville Horror”, “The Interpreter” is a welcome breath of fresh air in what has otherwise been a fairly dull season for movies.