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The political thriller reflects our troubled age


Displaying his familiar competence and intelligence, Sydney Pollack's new movie, The Interpreter, also demonstrates an appropriate connection to contemporary history. Like his Three Days of the Condor of 1975, the picture addresses, through its slick, exciting surface action, a most plausible and disquieting international reality, touching on some of the peculiar tensions of our time. It also cleverly inverts some of the typical patterns of one of the most relevant genres for this troubled age, the political thriller.

The movie presents a situation familiar to any student of the cinema or fan of the form, the chance involvement of an innocent person, an ordinary citizen, in a sinister and dangerous conspiracy. Nicole Kidman plays Silvia Broome, a United Nations interpreter with a specialty in African languages, who spends her days translating the speeches of foreign delegates into English. Returning to her translator's booth one night, she accidentally hears, through an open microphone on the floor, a plot to assassinate President Zuwanie of the fictional African nation of Matobo, scheduled to visit New York and speak to the General Assembly.

She reports her discovery to the proper authorities at the UN, who turn her and her information over to a division of the United States Secret Service charged with protecting foreign heads of state, complicating an apparently random event into a surprising entanglement of politics and emotion. Neither the UN security people nor Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), the Secret Service agent who interrogates her, entirely believe her story.

Their investigation of her background reveals the tragic history of her previous involvement in the chaotic affairs of Matobo, including the deaths of her parents and sisters in a landmine explosion, and eventually, the cold-blooded murder of her brother, which leads them to question both her veracity and her motivation.

Undergoing the sort of horrific turmoil that makes it an appropriate pseudonym for Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Rwanda, or any other nation engaged in civil war, tribal butchery, or simple inhuman tyranny, Matobo resembles far too many countries in the troubled continent. Its leader, formerly an idealistic rebel against dictatorial oppression, apparently plans his UN appearance as a public justification of his slaughter of opponents. His two chief rivals, one of whom lives in exile in Brooklyn, provide the prime suspects for the investigation of the alleged assassination and presumably the source of Kidman's story.

Although the plot should proceed in part as a more or less traditional unfolding of the methods set in motion to protect the visiting president, with the usual frantic race against time, the picture in a sense moves backward, gradually revealing Kidman's history and the parallel history of Matobo. The retrospective quality of the narrative, oddly, generates almost as much suspense as the more familiar business of the Secret Service's procedures in investigating Kidman, and their gradual accumulation of knowledge of her past --- which they acquire along with the audience ---influences both their changing attitudes toward her and the development of the assassination plot. The Service actually suspects the interpreter of some complicity in the ostensibly chance occurrence she reports, and in a sense, they ultimately turn out to be both right and wrong.

The close watch the Secret Service maintains on Silvia Broome, not surprisingly, creates something of a relationship between the interpreter and Agent Kidder, who nurses his own personal sorrow over the death of his wife. Their shared sense of grief and their acknowledged mutual attraction never really attain more than a kind of heightened emotional sensitivity and a tacit acknowledgment of some possible connection.

Her lovely fragility contrasts nicely with his bruised toughness and together they reach a genuinely touching, mostly unspoken understanding of each other, and a bittersweet sense of loss even without an actual bond.

The main thriller plot marches along with a nice sense of pacing, tightening the tension as the time of the presidential visit approaches and the Secret Service encounters numerous obstacles to their efforts, not the least of them Silvia Broome's own uncooperative attitude. As in The Three Days of the Condor, the director uses the New York location, and in this case the United Nations itself, with great skill, establishing an atmosphere of authenticity that nicely buttresses the familiar melodrama and sensationalism of the form.

Obeying the demands of its illustrious and entertaining genre and therefore creating a considerable quantity of excitement, The Interpreter achieves a most successful combination of action, character, and theme, suggesting again the contemporary relevance of the thriller for this or any other time.

The Interpreter, starring Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn; directed by Sydney Pollack. Cinemark Tinseltown, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Greece Ridge, Regal Henrietta