In a small African country named Matobo, two men are ambushed and killed when they seek out the dead bodies of citizens who have been killed by government forces. A photographer named Philippe manages to escape.
At the UN Headquarters in New York the Security Council demands that President Zuwani (Earl Cameron) of Matobo be tried at The Hague for the crimes he has committed against his people. The president’s men argue that he has the right to defend himself and his actions to the UN General Assembly. Plans are made for him to come within a few days.
One of the UN interpreters is a lovely young woman named Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman.) She speaks Ku, the language of Matobo because she was actually born there. She speaks other languages as well. There is a security evacuation one afternoon, and she leaves a bag in one of the booths. When she returns for it later she overhears a whispered conversation in Ku. A man’s voice says that there will be an attempt on President Zuwani’s life when he comes to give his speech.
Silvia doesn’t report the threat until the next morning. By the time the Secret Service task force arrives, headed by Agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), he already doubts her story because she didn’t call it in immediately. They end up distrusting each other. Him, because he interprets her facial expression as hiding something; she because he insists on playing with the meanings of words.
Other characters come into play to make sure we don’t guess the outcome in this fast-moving political thriller skillfully directed, as usual, by Sydney Pollack.
The Interpreter is all about communication and how we make meaning from words, gestures, and expressions. Sometimes we may be right; but often we misinterpret what the other person means. The fact that the film takes place at the United Nations where representatives of almost 200 countries and dozens of languages meet to consider peace in a world where there are 35 wars going on today, is not lost on the mindful viewer.
The Interpreter is the first film to ever be shot in the United Nations Building in Manhattan. I heard Roger Ebert say on his TV show last night that Alfred Hitchcock asked permission forty years ago to use the UN in a film and he was turned down. Perhaps the timing of The Interpreter, that draws our attention to communication, is more important now than ever. Negotiation is the only way to peace.
I enjoyed the film very much. It’s true I did kind of figure it out at a certain point, but it didn’t stop me from staying with it just to be sure. Sean Penn is his soulful best as Keller because he is in mourning for his wife who died recently. Nicole Kidman, as always, is excellent as Silvia, who has her own reasons for deep sadness. They work well together. This is an intelligent, engrossing and entertaining movie. Go for it.