Interpreter, The (2005) **
Directed by Sydney Pollack. Written by Charles Randolph, Scott Frank, Steven Zeillian from a story by Matin Stellman & Brian Ward, Photography, Darius Khondji. Ediing, William Steinkamp. Production design, John Hutman. Music, James Newton Howard, Producers, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Kevin Misher. A Universal Pictures release. 123 minutes, PG-13 CAST: Nicole Kidman (Silvia Broome), Sean Penn (Tobin Keller), Catherine Keener (Dot Woods), Jesper Christensen( Nils Lud), Yvan Attal (Philippe), Earl Cameron (President Zuwanie), George Harris (Kuman-Kuman), et al.
How sad to be unable to give Sydney Pollack a very high rating. He is certainly one of our top –and simpatico --filmmakers. His 27 or so features include –in haphazard order--Havana, Out of Africa, Tootsie, Three Days of the Condor, Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, They Shoot Horses: Don't They?, and more admirable works, many of them starring Robert Redford. He has been and is a first-rate actor, producer and much else in cinema.
The political thriller "The Interpreter" is full of good intentions, but good intentions do not a superior movie make. Or a "clear and clean" one, like those of Alfred ("The King") Hitchcock, aka The Man Who Knew so Much about films and managed so well to weave his threads in perfect ways.
Hitchcock comes to mind her because, for his superb "North by Northwest" he tried, in vain, to get a permission to shoot some scenes –just a few—in the United Nations Building. Pollack however did get the authorization, the first one ever, and shot many scenes. (That accomplishment by itself ought to make a fascinating documentary.)
The plot –in its broadest depiction. Silvia (Nicole Kidman) born in the (imaginary) African country of Matobo where she grew up and where her father, mother (farmers) and sister were killed by a mine. Silvia got a fine education (where? No idea. Europe?), was a polyglot, also a rifle-carrying member of some sort of resistence (very unclear) at some point (which?), and (skipping the murkiness) ended up as a UN simultaneous translator for Ku (or Khu?), the language of Matobo.
At the UN, one night after closing time, Silvia returns to her office , to pick up some stuff (including her flute. No kiddin) she had left behind. And (magically) she overhears people talking about killing Matobo’s President Edmond Zuwani. How easy it is to circulate in the armed-to-the-teeth UN building after hours raises one’s eyebrows at least three inches. Ditto for the captured conversation.
To make things muddier, President Zuwani, originally a fine libertarian, long ago turned into a reactionary tyrant. He is coming to the UN to explain how he will turn his country into a model democracy. Ho Hum!
Silvia contacts the American authorities. A mess of U.S. agencies get going. Her main contact –and protector—is agent (?) Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) who is a sad figure. We learn by bits that his wife (call her W) was having affairs right and left but always came back to him. At some point we learn, in diffuse ways, that this time, W won’t come back for the simple reason that with her latest lover she died in a car crash.
Mercifully, I shall stop. The story gets thicker than baked beans and harder to understand than one’s Income Tax. There’s much brooding, mysterious phone calls and meetings, car-traffic (oddly silent), chasing and spying galore, muddled and remuddled parts that refuse to coalesce, flute-playing, frightening faces pressed against the window in Kidman’s apartment, her trusty scooter, etc. Also two groups of anti-President Zuwani ‘s haters Matoboan exiles in New York, groups that apparently also want to destroy one another, a bus in which the two factions (I think) are riding and which is made to explode… I could go on and on –and then some.
Hitchcock knew how to use Santa Simplicitas (Holy Simplicity). This flick only knows puzzling, confusing and messing matters up, and throwing in more characters than we can digest. Granted, there are many well-shot passages (thanks to cinematographer Khondji) and sights, sites and images that grip you. Granted that the old cliché that would have Kidman and Penn fall in love (or at least, in bed) is avoided. Still this humongous salad is not digestible. And that’s putting it mildly. To make any bits of sense out of the flick, what’s needed is an Interpreter.