Thumbs Up for the Interpreter

There’s a lot to like in director Sydney Pollack’s new film, The Interpreter. It’s a smart and exciting political thriller about the possible assassination of an African dictator at the United Nations which keeps you riveted from start to finish.

It’s also a terrific showcase for Oscar-winners Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman. With shades of Hitchcock and hints of Frankenheimer (the director of the original Manchurian Candidate), Pollack weaves an intricate tale of intrigue and suspense. By the time the film races to its exciting conclusion, you’ll be guessing about who’s done it, who’s going to do it, and why did that happen. And you’ll be enjoying every minute of the way.

The Interpreter of the title is Sylvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), a U.N. employee who specializes in Africa languages. One night after hours when Sylvia returns to her listening booth to retrieve her tote bag, she overhears a few words over her earphones that seem to suggest an assassination is planned and will occur in three days. Enter Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), Secret Service agent in charge of protecting foreign dignitaries. It’s his job to stop the assassination attempt — assuming Sylvia’s story is believed.

But neither character is what they seem to be. Keller is a walking nervous breakdown, trying to get over the death of his estranged wife by throwing himself into his work. And Sylvia has a background and connections to the visiting African world leader that makes Keller question every word she says and every move she makes. Could she be involved in the assassination? Did she really hear what she says she heard? Why does she slip away from the surveillance that is designed to protect her?

Pollack, who’s no stranger to making taut thrillers (The Firm and Three Days of the Condor), brilliantly keeps the story percolating. He uses New York locations like few other directors do anymore, almost making the city another character in the film. From a bench in Central Park to a park on the river in Queens, Pollack vividly stages scenes that are at once realistic and yet still picturesque. The film is vibrant and alive.

In one sequence, Pollack intercuts the principals all descending on the United Nations building — police cars racing through traffic, SUVs convoying across the Triborough Bridge, helicopters buzzing overhead, protestors on 2nd Avenue, U.N. members entering the general assembly, the assassin putting a weapon together — and the drama pumps and pounds to the beat of James Newton Howard’s score. There’s a lot to be said about a veteran film director who knows what he’s doing behind the camera, and Pollack rises to the occasion with this fine film.

Sean Penn has a difficult role here. They’ve given him a good back story (that he’s a grieving widower), but Keller is essentially a cop who’s on the job. He’s all about collecting evidence, looking through binoculars and chasing after the bad guys. The more complicated character is Kidman’s, and she’s never been better.

It’s not just that she has a great accent (eat your heart out, Meryl!), or that she’s never looked more beautiful on film (wonderful cinematography), it’s that Sylvia is a character who is alternately maddening and vulnerable. She’s a victim and a possible killer, and yet she creates great empathy. You can’t help but feel for her and you’re with her from the very start.

Although it’s early in the year to talk Oscars, Kidman’s performance rates a nomination and hopefully she’ll be remembered.

Overall, The Interpreter is a rarity in today’s film landscape, especially in April. It’s adult entertainment. If you’re an adult and you miss movies in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, treat yourself and go see The Interpreter. You won’t be disappointed.

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