At first flush, and perhaps for the first hour, The Interpreter seems to be a one of those great political thrillers of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, something Sidney Lumet might have made. It stars Sean Penn as a Secret Service agent and Nicole Kidman as interpreter of languages, even obscure African ones. But at some point, The Interpreter turns from good to bad, from an exploration of violence versus diplomacy to satisfying the fragile egos of two very big stars.
When lanky Silvia Broome (Kidman) accidentally overhears the whispers of an assassination plot, she is put under the protection of FBI agent Tobin Keller (Penn). Upon looking into her past (though she be lily white, she calls Africa home) he concludes she must be lying and, in fact, she could be the very assassin she’s tattling on. Keller wants to know what she was doing in the UN after hours anyway, how she managed to hear what she heard and whether or not she is the target of a hit herself.
For much of the film, we must endure long, slow scenes of Broome and Keller talking to each other, exchanging their sad stories – not only is Keller unraveling an assassination plot, but he’s also, coincidentally, grieving as his wife has left him for the final time. Why all of this in the middle of the movie? To give Penn the opportunity to shed some more tears? He cries not once but twice in this film, which robs the film of its momentum.
Meanwhile, Broome’s own past unfolds — growing up in Africa, enduring her parents’ death at the hands of the very leader who is to be assassinated. Not only that, but her last remaining family member, her brother, is missing somewhere in Africa. She must find out where he is and if he is safe. If he’s dead, the very same leader she’s working to protect will be the reason.
Excitement builds as the day comes for the African leader Zuwanie (Earl Cameron) to speak before the UN (during which the assassin is supposedly going to shoot him) – and the best scene in the film that finally makes it seem like the whole exercise has been worth it – is a tensely choreographed sequence on a bus in Brooklyn which has a rebel leader, Broome and FBI agent all aboard. As they realize it is about to explode, we wonder who will get off in time.
The scene is evidence that director Sydney Pollock really does know how to direct thrillers. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t amount to much after that — except heavy overacting by its two leads. Penn especially comes off in the realm of the melodramatic – has he been reading his own publicity perhaps? Though it may be sexist to say, it doesn’t quite work to have an FBI agent coming emotionally unglued when he’s supposed to be able to push that back to do his job. Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, any of these guys would have done the part better.
As for Kidman, why in god’s name did Sydney Pollock make two movies with Africa in their titles and have them star white people? In her effort to be “African,” the very very white looking Kidman seems beyond ridiculous. The part should have been cast with a black actress. Making Kidman representative of Africa is perhaps among the stupider things Hollywood has ever done. She gives long speeches about her “Africa,” her home – she has masks on the wall, she carries a machine gun on the streets of Africa to protect “her people.” I myself wanted to vomit, I don’t know about you.Perhaps the message of the film is a good one: sometimes diplomacy is too slow. Sometimes violence, hard and swift is the only answer. But it’s muddied by the amount of screen time given to two actors who very much stand in the way of an otherwise decent story.