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A Decent Film, "Interpreter" Still Serves as Huge U.N. Ad

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • Updated Jul 27, 2007
A Decent Film, "Interpreter" Still Serves as Huge U.N. Ad

Release Date:  April 22, 2005
Rating:  PG-13 (for violence, some sexual content and brief strong language)
Genre:  Drama/Thriller
Run Time:    128 min.
Director:   Sidney Pollack
Actors:   Sean Penn, Nicole Kidman, Catherine Keener, Jesper Christensen, Yvan Attal, Earl Cameron and George Harris
Much has been made during the last few weeks about director Sidney Pollack’s “unprecedented access” to the United Nations building in New York, so I guess no one should be surprised that the “The Interpreter,” while a decent film, also serves as a huge advertisement for the U.N.

Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), who grew up in the fictional country of Matoba (which has overtones of Zimbabwe), is one of the few people in the world to speak the language of Koo.  Fluent in other languages as well, Silvia works as an interpreter for the U.N.  One night, she enters a sound room to retrieve her bag and overhears two men whispering in Koo about assassinating the Matoban president.  A liberator turned dictator, Zuwanie has committed countless acts of genocide in his country and is arriving in a few days to deliver an important speech at the U.N., which will determine whether he is tried for crimes against humanity.

Secret service agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) are assigned to the case, but Keller doesn’t believe Silvia, which causes some friction between the two.  It turns out that not only were Silvia’s parents and sister killed by the Matoban government, but Silvia also participated in anti-governmental marches and protests.  Keller even uncovers a photo of her toting a machine gun.  Chased by the would-be assassins, Silvia turns to an old photographer friend who has been working with her brother, her only surviving relative.  Soon, however, he is dead, along with several other people who have become involved in the case.  Zuwanie arrives for his speech under heavy security, as Silvia is trying to evade the killers, who are tracking her.

Sidney Pollack is an excellent director, with notable and varied credits like his 1975 “Three Days of the Condor,” “Tootsie” and “Out of Africa.”  And, while this film is mostly enjoyable, it lacks the heart-pounding drama a thriller should have.  The script works, but it also lacks credulity on a number of levels.  Even though I’m willing to accept the film’s premise, it’s still a bit ridiculous to think that two people would plot a major assassination in a room full of microphones – much less that Silvia, the only person at the U.N. to speak their rare language, just happens to overhear them.  The setup is even more absurd when you consider that, for some reason, she has stored her bag in an unlocked sound room, but has a locker that she uses throughout the day.  

We also learn that Silvia has a very political background, however the Secret Service doesn’t investigate this (they aren’t the ones to uncover the information, either), and somehow, this slipped past the U.N. as well, when they hired Silvia.  Later, when the assassination (which mimics the one in “The Manchurian Candidate” far too much) is about to take place, it becomes obvious that several major security violations must have occurred, but we aren’t offered any explanation about how.  Pollack makes his usual Hitchcock-style cameo which, unlike his role in “Tootsie” (as Dustin Hoffman’s agent), is wholly unnecessary.

All of these contrivances are no doubt due to the fact that five people wrote this film, which suffers from a “too many cooks” syndrome.  The script is further hindered by paternalistic overtones about Africa that are similar to the ones in Pollack’s “Out of Africa.”  For example, why is Silvia’s character, who is African – like all the other important African characters – white?  Pollack again falls into this annoying cliché when he inserts African tribal chanting into his final scene. 

Kidman and Penn both do a great job, although they lack chemistry.  This film is a thriller, however, not a romance, and thankfully, Pollack does not succumb to the temptation to throw his lead actors in bed together, as we see in most modern thrillers.  Both of their characters suffer from deep-seated grief, and Kidman and Penn both portray this well.  In particular, Penn’s subtlety makes for an outstanding performance – one that is quite the opposite of his role in “Mystic River.”  Secondary characters add dimension and the occasional humorous line to the film, as they should.

Liberals will be ecstatic about the film’s message, which openly assures us about the great and noble institution of the U.N., and how diplomacy should be the first, last and only resort.  “Words and compassion are the better way,” Silvia says, “even if they’re slower than a gun.”  Outside of the dove vs. hawk agenda we’re being bombarded with right now from Hollywood, this is actually a good message.  It’s definitely Jesus’ message, and it’s one we should heed whenever possible.  This is further underlined by Silvia’s description of an African ritual that invites wounded individuals and families to forgive their tormentor.  As she speaks, Silvia utters the best line that I’ve heard in a long time from a film.  “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief,” she says. 

No doubt, much of the world’s conflict today – just as much of the conflict within our own country, and even within ourselves – is due to our unwillingness to grieve our many losses in life.  While attending seminary, I was required to visit a local mortuary and see a dead body, in preparation for dealing with the deceased and their families.  “Psychologists are getting rich because we refuse to grieve our dead,” the funeral director said.  It’s great wisdom that, sadly, is not always easy to practice.  Grieving hurts and is terribly uncomfortable and inconvenient – precisely why we avoid it.

When it comes to the U.N, however, I’ve worked for them, and so has my sister (who spent 8 months in Iraq after the first Gulf War, working for the U.N.H.C.R.).  So I know what a ridiculously incompetent organization it is.  That its internal security officers are portrayed as being even remotely competent, when the U.N.’s international peacekeeping troops aren’t allowed to fire their guns – even in the face of abject murder and mayhem – is laughable.  (See “Hotel Rwanda” for a devastating portrayal of their ineptitude.)  And when country leaders who have committed mass genocide serve as heads of committees “investigating” human rights violations – instead of being held accountable at The Hague for their crimes against humanity – it seems highly implausible that this organization is ever going to accomplish anything.  I’m glad that the U.S. has stopped funding the overwhelming majority of the U.N.’s bloated budget, which rewards secretaries and other clerks – who often work no more than a few hours a day – with astronomical salaries and cushy benefits.  Let Ted Turner keep paying for this, if he wants.

If you can get past the political agenda, which plagues almost every film these days, and are willing to overlook “The Interpreter”’s improbabilities, then it isn’t a bad film.  You probably won’t remember it in a few weeks, but it will be a fairly enjoyable experience while you watch it.

AUDIENCE:  Adults and mature teens.


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:    Characters drink beer and liquor throughout film, including several discussions in bars, over drinks.
  • Language/Profanity:  About 15 obscenities and profanities.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:   A brief scene in a strip club, where strippers dance and gyrate while wearing G-strings (partial nudity); couple hugs then sleeps together, fully clothed, on couch.
  • Violence:   Partially-lit scene showing dozens of mutilated dead bodies; men are shot to death at point-blank range by children; art photos of mutilated individuals on walls of U.N.; ongoing discussions about genocide, murder and mutilation; man plants bomb on bus, which explodes and kills dozens of people; man kills several people (offscreen) in assassination attempt; characters point guns.