"There is no such thing as the United Nations.
There is only the international community, which
can only be led by the only remaining superpower,
which is the US."
Neocon John Bolton, US candidate for U.N. Ambassador
"Can I get you anything?" – "How about a hood?"
Secret Service Agent to UN Interpreter
about to take a lie detector test...
If only the entire movie had the same serrated edge as that
simple but politically loaded exchange. Even staunch anti-war
activist Sean Penn, here playing a secret service agent, gets
to tell Nicole Kidman (the eponymous interpreter) that last
year was a 'rough one' for the beleaguered United Nations.
Doesn't he know it. Penn took off for Iraq to see for himself
and got a lot of flack for it. It was believed (by whom I'd
love to know) that famous actors should stay well clear of
politics. Why? Is acting only allowed if you're already a
politician? What about those who've left show business for,
erm… another show business? Eastwood, Reagan or Rainer
Wolfcastle - sorry, Arnold Schwarzenegger; does Hollywood
encourage right wing thespian ambition? What happened to the
Sarandons, the Sheens and the rest of the luvvie left? Don't
they get to run?
United Nations, championed in Sydney Pollack's new thriller,
is under threat in the real world. Its power has been blunted
by the political and economic needs of an Anglo-American Christian
cabal who have the literal power to play war in whomever's
back yard they please. And it's a power they are only too
willing to use. In a way, it's a very good thing that the
physical presence of the U.N. is in New York. Anywhere else
and it really would be ignored. It's good to see the iconic
building and its ideals actually taking centre stage. Now
if Kofi Annan can get his son out of the news, maybe the United
Nations can weather the Iraqi shaped snub from its host country
and start making a difference again.
In The Interpreter, translator Sylivia Broome
(Kidman) overhears a death threat aimed at a Mugabe-like African
dictator based in a fictional African country (not that we're
fooled for a second). Sean Penn is Keller, the agent in charge
of the visiting head of state's safety. Past events haunt
both characters and via a sometimes implausible plot, they
come to a personal understanding about the nature of grief.
So Star Wars, this isn't, thank the Force
for that. All the elements are in the right place and most
are in the right order. There's nothing to criticise in the
acting and the direction is assured. It just feels like all
the ingredients are there but it's just a tad, a mere smidgeon
undercooked. The urgency isn’t quite urgent enough.
The thrills are not quite thrilling enough. It feels like
a script issue but Pollack does like to take his time. Maybe
all those knowing looks delivered by the principals derailed
when is another director going to let composer James Newton-Howard
have his head? Is M. Night Shylaman the only director who
pushes his music to the fore and not treat it as if it were
orchestral bubbles simmering under the surface? Newton-Howard's
score (as much as you could hear in the atmosphere and effects
heavy mix) services the film well enough but it's not a trait
of the movie that pulls everything into a cohesive whole.
It has its moments but again, almost perversely, the moment
of the movie belongs to two supporting actors in a throw away
bit of human behaviour. It's such a small moment, one to be
naturally overlooked by any casual viewing but I was touched
have established that Penn has a no nonsense partner (played
by Catherine Keener, the romantic ideal of both Cameron Diaz
and John Cusack in Being John Malkovich).
There is a solidity about their professional relationship
and this never strays into romantic areas although it is clear
there is trust and affection on both sides. This, we assume,
is how secret service agents operate regardless of gender.
But after a catastrophic event that results in a dead colleague,
Keener arrives at the scene with Penn and the first thing
she does is go over to one of the other male agents, who escaped
barely with his life and holds him almost maternally. It's
a throwaway gesture that all at once acknowledges shock (in
a Hollywood movie, Heavens!) and the importance of caring
physical contact after a trauma. The way Keener delivers this
action is as natural as it is appreciated. But still the movie
fails to really open up its thriller throttle.
Pollack has a lot to live up to. His superb Three
Days of the Condor is the template
Hollywood political movie and I am aware of the oxymoronic
usage of both 'Hollywood' and 'political'. He even has Penn
quote from Condor albeit in the guise of
an original dialogue line. But what a fine line it is: "You
think not getting caught in a lie is the same as telling the
truth." Classy. But whereas Condor (from
the initial group assassination) bulleted along with the total
audience identification on Redford, The Interpreter (once we know Kidman's heard something bad) delivers us two
at first antagonistic protagonists and the movie does an odd
sort of split. This isn't to say that both characters are
not worth delving into psychologically but it damages the
pace of the film concentrating on the two stories. Yes, it
may have worked better with some genuine surprises in the
script and yes, it's less of a thriller and more about how
one handles death according to one's cultural identity but;
as Penn figures out the mechanics of the final scenes there's
a "Oh, so that’s what it's about, is it?"
a sort of meta-English take on a leisurely thriller. At this
point in the narrative we want to be blown away. You're left
wondering "Where’s Nicole?" as she wanders
off for the last fifteen minutes of the movie.
Ms. Kidman. She has been praised on this site, notably for
her extraordinary work on Dogville.
Here she is playing a white south African (with a Streep-like
accent, that is, a pretty much faultless one) and showing
at first a glacial (from Africa?), brittle front. She warms
up (of course) and both the protected and curmudgeonly secret
service protector get chummy as in these movies, they always
do. But what floored me about Kidman this time out was how
perfectly she slips into the 'star' role, the actress as icon.
Of course that's more the audience's doing on a global scale
but cinematographer Darius Khondi helps a great deal. Kidman
is luminescent in this film. I swear she actually glows. It's
a soft, light skintone framed by blond hair that always seems
to deposit strands for maximum vulnerability and therefore
desirability. Kidman's recent workload has led her into some
recent mis-castings but she acquits herself wonderfully for
Penn as Agent Keller is very convincing. Penn has that extraordinary
face, the pinched anguish as default. One of the idiosyncrasies
of Kidman's brother in The Interpreter is
to make a list of words he likes. At the top of the list is
'bodacious'. This simply has to be a reference to one of Penn's
earliest and most knockabout roles, that of the stones surfer
of Fast Times At Ridgemont High. 'Bodacious'
was his character’s word du jour, or even d'année.
Penn's Keller has been knocked for six by a meaningless accident
and only a month away from it, he is still raw and in no mood
for displaced African interpreters with a chip on their shoulder.
Penn manages the hard to soft dissolve with some panache given
that in lesser hands, his admission of why he feels the way
he feels would be ham-fisted and clumsy. As mentioned before
Pollack and his editor really let the actors have their moments,
pauses included but then as German architect Mies van der
Rohe said "God is in the details…" or was
it the devil?
other details are required to make a thriller thrill. The
presence and the faces of the stars are not enough. But that
said, it's an admirable movie looking back at its own host
country and finding a lot to criticise even if it is Hollywood
criticism, toothless but strangely good looking…