In One Ear

(Photo credit: Phil Bray/Courtesy of Universal)

There’s something to be said for the smoothly controlled, big-scale craftsmanship that director Sydney Pollack brings to his new political-suspense film The Interpreter … and it has all been said, in the first wave of reviews. People who tell you that this is his most exciting work since Three Days of the Condor (1975) don’t remember that Condor wasn’t very exciting: It was, like The Interpreter, pulp rendered tame and glossy—a coffee-table thriller. (And can we agree that being the first film to contain scenes shot at the United Nations, while nifty as a piece of industry negotiation, isn’t really that impressive?) Yet the secret strength in this long but comfy movie—assiduously liberal in its politics but still game for a commercially calculated New York City–bus–blows–up scene—is the marvelously subtle performance given by Sean Penn.

Nicole Kidman is, make no mistake about it, the star of this production. She is the interpreter of the title, after all, pleasantly unconvincing in a good movie-star way: an impossibly gorgeous woman whom everyone treats like a mousy intellectual. She wears severe horn-rims and plays the flute to relax whenever she’s not parsing the syntax of a multitude of languages—including a fictional one, Ku, that accompanies the fictional African country Matobo from which her Manhattan-based character, born a white Afrikaner, hails. The Interpreter takes its title as its theme—trust and honesty, especially between blacks and whites, is open to numerous interpretations, depending on who’s interpreting the motives of others. (Pollack, one of the most New York–y of New York filmmakers, throws in one nice little joke—a copy of the John Leonard book of essays titled The Last Innocent White Man in America on Kidman’s tabletop.)

It is Kidman’s character, Silvia Broome, who accidentally discovers a plot to assassinate an African head of state. Penn’s Tobin Keller, a federal agent, is assigned to protect her. The screenwriters may have ladled on thick glop for Tobin’s backstory—he’s miserable and drinking too much because his wife died recently—but they did Penn a great favor by making him mistrustful of Silvia’s motives for coming forth about the potential crime she’s overheard discussed. Because this gives Penn’s character some immediate propulsion in a two-hour-plus movie that needs all the momentum it can muster. Instead of guarding her glumly or falling immediately for her alluring melancholy (that comes later), Penn spends the first half of the movie wary and suspicious—Tobin shakes off his torpor by doing his job thoroughly, grilling Silvia about the disparity between her meek U.N. job and her young-revolutionary past.

Penn is terrific in his low-key doggedness. He is one of the few movie stars who can be given a line like “They hire us for our forgettable faces” and make it believable: He takes his crumpled features and retreats into the role, because Tobin, having been recently battered by the death of a loved one, is retreating from life.

In recent movies like Mystic River and The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Penn was rawly emotional—he must have felt that his working-class characters in those films wouldn’t hold much back, and his directors gave him showcase scenes in which he could really roar. The results were showy enough to win him an Oscar for the first film and good notices for the far-lumpier second, but they didn’t necessarily enhance his body of work—he was better as a dissolute university professor in 21 Grams. In The Interpreter, it’s as though he sized up the ambition Pollack was attempting for what may well be one of this veteran director’s last big-budget productions and decided the best thing an actor can do is play against all the intricate plotting, all the sweeping camera shots of the United Nations headquarters, and all the swirling luminescence Kidman gives off every time she shakes her blonde hair in bedazzling bafflement.

When Penn’s character is first introduced, we meet him with his FBI partner, played with terrific sardonic snap by Catherine Keener in clunky sensible shoes. Early on, I realized what I really wanted to see was a movie about these two, Penn and Keener, solving some knotty little mystery while wittily underplaying to each other. Instead, Pollack does his pro’s job of establishing their partnership and then abandons it, in order to put Penn in close proximity to Kidman, so that this roomy movie can have its intimate moments. With his made-up African country run by a revolutionary turned oppressor, Pollack wants to say something about the United Nations as a peace-mediating body, so he has all sorts of marginal characters turn variations on that theme. He’d have a stronger picture if he let the genre do the talking, and interpreted thriller conventions as a metaphor for human nature’s twists and betrayals.

The Interpreter
Directed by Sydney Pollack.
Universal. PG-13.

In One Ear