Are we over 9/11? These days you can't move without tripping over a Hollywood movie about global catastrophe, much of it happening in Manhattan. In Sydney Pollack's ambitious new political thriller TheInterpreter,Nicole Kidman plays a United Nations translator who becomes a moving target of more than one murky agency when she slips on her earphones during a routine bomb-scare evacuation and overhears a whispered exchange that suggests a visiting African head of state is scheduled for assassination. I can think of better casting than Kidman—Cate Blanchett, say, or Kate Winslet, or the sorely neglected Madeleine Stowe—to play a sophisticate as cerebral as Silvia Broome, a multilingual former activist in the same fictitious African country as the menaced potentate. Still, Kidman looks delectable in a careless ponytail and rimless glasses, gliding around New York on a beat-up Vespa, and she makes a fetching Beauty to the stoically wounded Beast assigned by the FBI to give her round-the-clock protection—or is it surveillance? By way of introduction, agent Tobin Keller, whom we have briefly glimpsed drowning his wedding ring in a double Scotch at a nearby bar, tells Silvia, "They hire us for our forgettable faces." Since the patently unforgettable mug in question belongs to Sean Penn, who is known for taking his face and the gray matter behind it extremely seriously, we must be grateful that the crisp screenplay credited to Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian has given him a saving feel for irony, and behind his character's stern professional exterior, an inviting softness of temperament. Not to mention a pleasant nocturnal habit of monitoring his attractive charge through binoculars from an adjacent high-rise.
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In the way of all thrillers, Keller and Silvia come to their uneasy partnership toting hastily sketched tragic back stories that serve, on the one hand, to cement their growing bond, on the other to further the movie's endlessly curling plot, which winds back and forth between the U.N. building, the land of Matobo (a thinly veiled blend of Zimbabwe and Mozambique) and back to Crown Heights for an explosive set piece that could only have been staged at a safe four years' remove from the Twin Towers tragedy. For all Pollack's strenuous efforts to spread suspicion among several possible assassins—including Silvia herself, who comes under scrutiny when it turns out that she was once active in a militant wing of Matobo's resistance movement and has ample reason to want to see the dictator Zuwanie (Earl Cameron) dead—if you're on your toes you'll have fingered at least one of the perps 20 minutes into the movie.
In truth Pollack has always been stronger and livelier addressing gender politics (one thinks of Tootsieand TheWayWeWere,if not the comatose Sabrina)than he is at making political thrillers. Kidman and Penn's moody chemistry make of TheInterpretera compelling love story, however understated. But notwithstanding a neat little plot fillip at the end, as a thriller the film is no more than competent and enjoyable in the way that Pollack's TheFirmwas, with its equally functional visual style, and certainly no more exciting. Still, there's fascination in the movie's mapping of a political landscape—part wish, part fear—that reveals as much about the contradictions in liberal American attitudes in the international arena as it does about global terror and diplomacy in a post-9/11 world. Zuwanie is a familiar Third World figure, the liberator turned corrupt dictator, and though Pollack is careful to acknowledge the legacy of white colonialism and to balance the despot with a more demotic black luminary who likes to take the bus and commune with the people of Manhattan, Zuwanie's resemblance to Zimbabwe's murderous Robert Mugabe is powerful enough to make one wish that his assassins would have at him and be done with it.
When it comes to the United Nations, though, the movie turns to Jell-O. Whether Pollack was softened up by his meetings with U.N. brass (all the way up to Kofi Annan), or by his own gentlemanly Midwestern liberalism, he is alarmingly circumspect about that august body. The dialogue is studded with high-minded proclamations about the triumph of diplomacy and order over vengeance and chaos, and dappled with homespun African proverbs about the saving balm of charitable behavior. That's all very nice, but you would hardly know from TheInterpreterthat we're talking about one of the most impotent organizations on the global stage, at once struggling with its own internal sources of corruption and, often as not, serving as a vassal of various national or regional interests, not least of all those of the United States. For all its contempo global reach, TheInterpretercomes off as a throwback to the thrillers of the Cold War, only now with different nations as enemies. You can hardly hear the still, small voice that, halfway through the movie, quietly murmurs, "There are no nations any more, only companies," and falls away.
THE INTERPRETER WAS DIRECTED BY SYDNEY POLLACK; WRITTEN BY CHARLES RANDOLPH, SCOTT FRANK AND STEVEN ZAILLIAN; PRODUCED BY TIM BEVAN, ERIC FELLNER AND KEVIN MISHER. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.