It's been 30 years since director Sydney Pollack made Three Days Of The Condor, one in a proud line of post-Watergate thrillers that were charged with paranoia and dread, the sense that the government had far-reaching powers that ordinary citizens could not contain. Pollack's sleek new thriller The Interpreter returns to the same form, but updates the politics for contemporary bugaboos like global terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and third-world strife. But compared to last year's underrated remake of The Manchurian Candidate, which hung on sharp, up-to-the-minute political references, the film's themes are disappointingly vague and unspecific, built around a fictitious African country that stands for anywhere–and consequently nowhere. Later in the film, when the audience is asked to mourn for the innocents lost in some far-off genocide, it takes a great leap of imagination to fill in the blanks.
Billed as the first Hollywood production ever granted access to the United Nations building, The Interpreter shoots its corridors of ineffectual power with elegance and awe, and fills them with a thick paperback's worth of international intrigue. Affecting an impeccable South African accent, Nicole Kidman plays the enigmatic title character, an official interpreter from the fictitious country of Matobo who overhears an assassination plot while working late one night in a booth above the general assembly. Fearing for her life, Kidman alerts the authorities, but when Secret Service agent Sean Penn and his partner Catherine Keener get involved, they care more about the safety of Matobo's vicious dictator, who's slated to speak in front of the delegation. As the plot thickens, suspicions naturally fall on Kidman, whose harrowing past has given her plenty of reasons to want the genocidal despot killed.
Impeccably produced and performed, The Interpreter wends through an overcooked script that seems worked over by too many revisions, but it's been made with an intelligence and craft that's increasingly rare in Hollywood thrillers. Intimate without quite crossing over into romance, the relationship between Kidman and Penn recalls Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, two kindred souls whose feelings for each other are shrouded in suspicion. The assassination scheme kicks up too many red herrings, and the logic behind it hinges on a series of wildly implausible events yielding a political result that's far from certain, even if the plan could come off without a hitch. One key line ("Vengeance is a lazy form of grief") hints at a sharp critique of U.S. foreign policy following 9/11, and there's something to be said about the U.N.'s current relevance in world affairs. But in a plot this soupy, the themes have trouble finding their way out.