The Interpreter

Predictable but enjoyable.

Sometimes I think we're better off not hearing much of the world's conversations especially between lovers and spies. In Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter, Nicole Kidman as a UN translator specializing in a minor African language unfortunately overhears some bad guys plotting in that tongue to assassinate a deserving African dictator. The film then goes on occasionally to discuss the importance of language, not just in translating professionally but also in daily conversation, such as defining "gone" as either leaving a place or leaving life. As Kidman says, "Words are slower than guns. But they are better." Pollack wants his screenplay to have equal time with his visual and to discuss the tension between verbal and gun diplomacy.

Sean Penn is the Secret Service agent assigned to figure out if Kidman is telling the truth, to stop the plot, and to protect her. Let me invite you to outline the screenplay from here, from panoramic New York skyline to crusty sidekick played by Christine Keener (Ballad of Jack and Rose), now firmly stereotyped as the wisecracking, world-weary middle-aged woman.

As to be expected with a slick Pollack film, Darius Khondji's cinematography and James Newton Howard's score match the sophisticated and frenetic urban world culminating in as tightly framed a scene aboard a bus as has been filmed since Speed. Diplomats, spies, and agents converge in confines that also remind me of Hitchcock's suspenseful bus scene in Sabotage. Interpreter's climactic scene in the UN has Manchurian Candidate (2004) roots as well.

It's all predictable but enjoyable even with plot holes the size of the Lincoln Tunnel. Even if you don't like slick, formulaic thrillers, you might see The Interpreter because it is the first feature allowed to film inside the real UN or because Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman do the getting-to-know-you routine with an effective minimalism foreign to today's show-all romances. The two preeminent actors play off their characters with a wariness and reserve refreshing and subtle. I wish there were more two shots rather than the usual reaction shots so I felt they were actually acting in the same room rather than separately. With a great director and great actors, I can be only suspicious.