Every day, United Nations speeches are translated into hundreds of different languages. Those unsung workers get their moment of glory in “The Interpreter,” Sydney Pollack’s (“The Firm”) political thriller. Unfortunately, UN interpretation turns out to be about as interesting as you thought it would be, even when murder is involved.
Translator Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) goes into the UN building after-hours and overhears a plot to kill the leader of Matobo, the country she happens to hail from. A fictional nation that bears a strong resemblance to Zimbabwe, Matobo suffers from all the trademark problems of Sub-Saharan Africa. There’s genocide, segregation, poverty and a revolutionary leader turned brutal dictator- in this case Edmond Zuwanie (Earl Cameron).
Secret Service agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) are called in to interrogate Silvia and stop the assassination. Silvia, of course, isn’t just a regular old translator. She’s sexy and she rides a motorcycle. Oh, and she has a dark past filled with rallies and guerilla warfare that ties into the current intrigue in all sorts of complicated ways.
Pollack tries to stuff this standard thriller with serious moral and political thoughts. In their very first conversation, Silvia and Tubin get into an intense debate over the value of diplomacy. Apparently he’s too busy pondering the value of the United Nations to provide her with adequate security. Assassins break into Silvia’s apartment repeatedly, and the SS doesn’t bother to move her or even put an agent in her room. A man blows up a bus and isn’t followed home. The agents almost never wear those cool sunglasses they have. If the real Secret Service is anything like this one, I fear for our government officials.
Not content with high-minded political talk, Pollack tries to further elevate the movie by playing up the African element. He makes the typical mistake of using all things African as a signifier of wisdom. Silvia yammers on about tribal customs and plays African music on her flute while the camera lingers on photos of exotic photographs. What personality she has is built entirely on her intense and oft-cited love of Africa. Is this cultural understanding?
With all these big issues floating around-Why do good people turn bad? Can we make peace without war?-the plot is allowed to wither and die. Suspects are never onscreen long enough to make credible villains. The story is so full of holes that the surprise ending(s) just blows to pieces the movie’s last few shreds of credibility.
The real momentum is supposed to come from Tobin and Siliva’s relationship, but that storyline doesn’t go anywhere either. Penn looks bored. Catherine Keener is always awesome, but she’s not onscreen enough. The most notable performance, at least for native New Yorkers, comes from real-life NY1 news anchor Pat Kiernan.
Supposedly Pollack met Kofi Annan personally in order to get access to the UN building (something Hitchcock couldn’t get for “North by Northwest”). If Annan thought “The Interpreter” would redeem the organization’s reputation as a place of action and importance, he’ll be very disappointed. “The Interpreter” is just a lot of pointless nonsense.
“The Interpreter” opens Friday in Washington D.C.