“The Interpreter” was the final film to be directed by the legendary Sydney Pollack (3 days of the Condor, Out of Africa, Jeremiah Johnson…in total about 40 films). The film stars Nicole Kidman and more importantly Sean Penn—who is one of my favorite actors.
Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) is an interpreter working at the United Nations in New York. She was raised in the fictional African country of the Republic of Matobo.
The United Nations is considering indicting the blood thirsty Edmond Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), President of Matobo, to stand trial at the Hague for crimes against humanity. Initially considered a liberator, over the past 20 years he has become corrupt and tyrannical and is now responsible for ethnic cleansing in his country. Zuwanie needs to make a speech directly to the United Nations in an attempt to save his ass and avoid the indictment.
After a hard day’s work, Silvia returns at night to get some personal belongings when she overhears discussion of an assassination plot, accidently turns on the light in the sound booth thereby making the would be assassins aware of her presence, and runs like hell. The next day she is translating a meeting between the U.S. and Matobo and it clicks with the words she overheard the night before, so she reports the incident to UN security; the target of the plot appears to be Zuwanie himself. UN security calls in the United States Secret Service. Enter Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) to investigate Silvia (much to her surprise), as well as protect Zuwanie when he shows up for his speech. Keller learns that Silvia has, in the past, been involved in a Matoban guerrilla group and that her parents and sister were killed by land mines laid by Zuwanie. On top of that she was even in bed (literally) with one of Zuwanie’s political opponents. Although Keller is very suspicious of Silvia’s story, the two grow close and Keller ends up protecting her from attacks. Silvia later finds that her brother Simon and her lover Xola were killed (as shown in the opening clip).
The purported assassin is discovered while Zuwanie is in the middle of his address to the General Assembly, and security personnel rush Zuwanie to a safe room for his protection. Silvia, anticipating this, has been hiding in the safe room, and confronts Zuwanie and intends to kill him herself. Keller determines that the assassination plot is a sham, intended to fail; Zuwanie arranged it to enhance his own credibility, and thus avoid the indictment, while also eliminating his political opponents. Keller rushes to the safe room and arrives just in time to prevent Silvia from murdering Zuwanie. Zuwanie is indicted, and Silvia is expelled from the USA, returning home to Matobo soon afterwards.
While there is great directing, great acting and a tense plot, the film doesn’t quite reach its potential, making “The Interpreter” what it is, an exciting, smart thriller that never quite attains the edge to take it to the next level. Why? A perfect ending. The first three quarters of the film are terrific, not at all action-packed which makes it even more exciting. With the direction of Sydney Pollack and the acting of Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, “The Interpreter” moves along at breakneck speed due to the tight construction of the plot and the equally compelling secrets of its main players. Some, however, will find it slow and boring, but that is their problem. That being said, “The Interpreter” falls short of wowing its audience and while I enjoyed it and would recommend it, I can’t see it having much sustainability in the years to come i.e. becoming a cult classic.
The film did pretty well at the box office grossing about $160,000,000 with a budget of about $80,000,000.
Now, what makes the “The Interpreter” a little special is that it is the first movie ever filmed inside the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council chambers. The producers initially approached the U.N. about filming there, but their request was turned down. The production would have relocated to Toronto with a constructed set; however, this would have substantially increased costs, so Sydney Pollack approached then-Secretary General Kofi Annan directly, and personally negotiated permission to film inside the United Nations. Annan commented on “The Interpreter” that “the intention was really to do something dignified, something that is honest and reflects the work that this Organization does. And it is with that spirit that the producers and the directors approached their work, and I hope you will all agree they have done that.”
Because the UN Security Council can call an emergency meeting at any time with three hours’ notice, the film crew had to take into account that they could be asked to leave almost immediately. Not surprisingly, Ambassadors at the United Nations had hoped to appear in the film, but actors were asked to play the roles of diplomats. Spain’s UN Ambassador Inocencio Arias jokingly complained that his “opportunity to have a nomination for the Oscar next year went away because of some stupid regulation.”