It’s not many films—or filmmakers—that can keep you hanging midway between weeping and panic. But Sydney Pollack’s wonderfully old-school (read: coherent) political thriller The Interpreter pulls off this enviable trick not once but twice, while offering viewers human-sized characters trapped in a specifically post-Sept. 11 Hitchcockian narrative. The result is that rare film-viewing experience of wide-eyed weightlessness possible only when you know you’re in the best of hands.
Using personal grief as a carrier for macro topics of national loss, the film features Nicole Kidman as Silvia, a seemingly apolitical African-born U.N. interpreter. Sean Penn plays Secret Service Agent Keller, whose gruff exterior hides an interior of pain caused by the recent death of his wife. Keller is assigned to investigate Silvia when she claims to have overheard talk of a planned assassination attempt at the United Nations on the visiting leader of Matobo, a fictional African nation in the throes of ethnic cleansing.
What follows is a series of elaborate, jittery dances. Keller is awakened from his whiskey-soaked somnambulism by the hopeful suspicion that Silvia may harbor a personal tragedy that mirrors his own; his ache in turn allows her to return to values she nearly loses in the film’s teeth-grinding finale. Meanwhile, both sides of the Matobo debacle are shown as lapsed idealists corrupted by realpolitik.
As an architect of the ’70s cinema that so many indie filmmakers unsuccessfully ape, Pollack has nothing to prove; his style is invisible, and therefore elegant. And unlike the Scott brothers, Michael Bay, and other offenders, he understands the ways in which spatiality can be used to limn nerve-racking tension.
We always know the exact geography of Silvia’s East Village neighborhood, the largely African Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, and the U.N. itself. When a terrorist scenario unravels horribly, we’re so in on the lay of the land that we’re free to absorb the tension and emotional moment, as opposed to wondering who the hell is going where and from which direction.
Meanwhile, Pollack allows Kidman the chance to reclaim her brand of vulnerability—recently besmirched in Lars von Trier’s hateful Dogville and the imbecilic Birth—and smartly uses it to mask Silvia’s iron will. And nobody does “nothing” with greater gravity than Penn.
While easily the best U.S. thriller in ages, The Interpreter gains currency amid the current administration’s contempt for the U.N. and diplomacy in general. In an atmosphere of manufactured mass polarization, this film is a timely, high-energy valentine to reconciliation.