Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s (Three Days of the Condor) and the 1990s (The Firm). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit.
The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism of ‘70s Pollack (Condor) has given way to rather simplistic preaching; The Constant Gardener, released in the same year as The Interpreter, has much more bite (even if it ultimately opts for a pat resolution).
The Interpreter’s opening sequence, however, promises much that the rest of the picture fails to deliver on. In the (fictional; this isn’t the sort of film that’s willing to offend anybody) Republic of Matobo two individuals investigating atrocities committed by President Zuwanie are murdered by child soldiers. The contrast with the idyllic charm of Out of Africa must have occurred to Pollack, but he spends the rest of the film in New York piling unlikely incident upon unlikely incident.
We learn that the UN is considering bringing charges against him, as a consequence of which Zuwanie is due to put his case to the General Assembly. Nicole Kidman’s UN interpreter Silvia Broome, a Matoban national, overhears an assassination plot against the President when she goes to retrieve her bag late one night. She reports the incident and the Secret Service assign Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) to the case. Keller is sceptical of her story, convinced she is not telling the whole truth, but it soon becomes clear that her life is now under threat.
There is a lack of coherence to the manner in which the tale unfolds, and the secrets that Silvia holds up her sleeve. There’s an enormous coincidence at the heart of the tale that makes a lot more sense when you learn of the extensive rewrites that Pollack requested (Scott Frank, Steven Zaillian and David Rayfiel all took screenplay credits, over the story ones for Martin Stellman and Brian Ward). It turns a plot development that makes some degree of sense in terms of character and back-story into a huge contrivance that no amount of suspicion on the part of Keller can staunch.
It doesn’t help that both characters are lent utterly ham-fisted backgrounds. Silvia’s is unbelievable in part because Kidman is so miscast; you can’t imagine someone of her pinched fragility consorting with a guerilla group (which is another example of the script’s pile-up of laughable artifice). Keller is weighed down with tiresomely rote baggage that Penn is unable to emote through convincingly. And the two actors have zero chemistry, making for the chilliest lead performances by a couple of Oscar winners in recent memory.
Their dialogue is utterly corny too, trotting out the likes of “You think that not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth”. None of the supporting players have large enough roles to distract from the central vacuum. Catherine Keener is forgettable as Keller’s partner, while Pollack himself is in a couple of scenes as his boss.
So it’s left to the director to instill some drama into the proceedings. The highlight is a surveillance sequence that culminates in a bombing. It is expertly
constructed, although it does leave you rather questioning the deductive skills of the Secret Service (I guess the filmmakers weren’t in thrall to them, only the UN).
The UN aspect allows Pollack to wear a false mantle of prestige; The Interpreter is “about something”. But, even given the assumption that it is an institution to be venerated, the film offers no insights into its workings. The presence of a made-up African nation only further stakes out the piece as inconsequential. But most damaging, since the rest is essentially window dressing if the vehicle has a good motor, is that as a thriller this is consistently hackneyed and one-note. Add to that its toothlessness and you’re left with a less than illustrious note on which to finish a career in movie directing.