"The Interpreter" is the kind of film that wants to make a great statement but ends up just making a puddle on the floor. Nicole Kidman is Silvia Broome, an interpreter at the United Nations, who one night, going back to her booth for her bag, hears what might be a whispered assassination plot against President Zuwanie, the despotic and genocidal ruler of her African country, Matobo (back story: her family were white farmers there), when he arrives next week to address the General Assembly. She reports it and the entire security apparatus of the United States swings into operation to protect him, led by Secret Service agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn).
Our question, of course, would be, Is this a good thing or a bad thing? And that's one of the problems with the film; it pretends to deal with the kinds of moral qualms that the world faces - or runs from - with respect to Zimbabwe, Congo or Rwanda, but it is so careful not to be too forward or frank about it all that we cannot find a way to care.
At first, Keller doesn't trust Silvia; is she just planting this hint? Is she involved in some way? Why won't she tell us about her own connections with the political opposition? A team of screenwriters that includes Steven Zaillian (Academy Award for "Schindler's List") has allowed the story to become so involved and overly mysterious that we lose all interest and quickly become numb to the issues. There are not one but two contending opposition groups, there are possible traitors within Zuwanie's own camp, there is the mysterious Silvia and the dogged Keller and his loyal sidekick Dot Woods (the brilliant actressCatherine Keener in a criminally underwritten part). There is surveillance of just about everybody in Manhattan, it seems, and the requisite losing of the key suspect at just the wrong time, there is a bomb on a bus, and a dozen other traumas intended to shock us but which simply hurt the film's credibility instead.
In order to avoid even the hint of sexual chemistry between Penn and Kidman the film is careful to let us know that Keller had just, a couple of weeks ago, lost his wife when the car driven by her lover hit a tree in Taos. Why Taos? No doubt it seemed better than, say, Scarsdale or Hempstead. "She'd left me before," he says, "but this time she was coming back." Right.
The film was directed by Sydney Pollack, who has a string of good and important films to his credit, including "Tootsie," "Three Days of the Condor," and "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" But he doesn't direct much these days, choosing to produce instead, and "The Interpreter" shows some lazy directing. When two people are talking he never goes beyond simply cutting back and forth from one to the other: cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut - until you feel you're watching a ping-pong match. He doesn't use his camera for anything other than to record action or dialogue.
There is one marvelous moment in the film, though, and it is a story Kidman tells when she's asked why she won't take part in a particular murderous action. She tells of a tribe, the Ku, who deal with murder in this way: When the killer is caught, he is taken out in a boat, along with the victim's family. He is then thrown into the water to drown. The aggrieved family then can let him die or they can rescue him. If they let him die, they will have their vengeance but they will grieve forever. If they rescue him, he will live but they will have peace. It is their choice.
As it happens, something like that is now being used in the reconciliation tribunals of Rwanda, the Gacaca. It is perhaps the only way of dealing with the unbearable.