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Tongue Twister 

Accomplished thriller doesn't always talk the talk

Remember when political thrillers mattered? In such 70s classics as The Parallax View, The Conversation and All the President's Men, filmmakers adopted a take-no-prisoners stance that allowed them to name names, tackle incendiary issues head-on, and not worry about how to wrap matters up with a tacked-on happy ending. Watching these films even today, there's a sense that something was truly at stake — and that "something" wasn't necessarily restricted to the topography of the movie screen. Beyond the ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy of President's Men, both Parallax and Conversation chilled audiences with their nightmarish scenarios of a United States in which no God-given right was so precious that it couldn't be taken away in the blink of an eye if it ran contrary to the interests of the small cabals that really run this country.

Sydney Pollack is no stranger to this sort of paranoia thriller. He directed one of the best: 1975's Three Days of the Condor, in which CIA reader Robert Redford must figure out why he's been marked for termination — possibly by the very agency for which he punches out a living. That Pollack would now be helming something like The Interpreter points out how much cinema has changed over the ensuing decades.

Firebrand moviemaking still exists, but it's almost exclusively found in the realm of documentaries, where its creators don't have to answer to nervous studio suits as they aim their arsenal of words and imagery at George W. Bush or Enron or even McDonald's. It takes a filmmaker of rigid moral fiber — and a studio willing to finance such an endeavor — to actually blanket multiplexes with a fictional tale that might ruffle feathers in high places. David O. Russell's Three Kings (courtesy of Warner Bros.) and Warren Beatty's Bulworth (from Fox!) were such films; The Interpreter, for all its high-minded ambitions, isn't quite there.

That's not to say that The Interpreter is a dud. As one of the few movies out there that doesn't cater to the kids or to the Tarantino fanatics (or is that a redundancy?), this earns high marks for remembering that movies can have meaty plots, intricate character dynamics and a relaxed storytelling style that will strike many as bloated and boring but which is actually deliberately paced and involving. But even with a script co-written by such heavy hitters as Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) and Scott Frank (Minority Report), the film studiously avoids mixing its reel-world politics with real-world politics. This timidity is not a virtue.

Nicole Kidman ably portrays the title character: She's Silvia Broome, who escaped a troubled past in her (fictional) African homeland of Matobo to become an interpreter at the United Nations building in New York. Late one night, she just happens to overhear two voices discussing a plot to assassinate Matobo president Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), a former freedom fighter who's now a mad butcher prone to slaughtering his own people. Because Zuwanie is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly to defend his position, Silvia deduces that must be when the killers plan to strike. Relaying the info to the police (veteran actor Clyde Kusatsu has a couple of nice scenes as the chief), she then finds herself being interrogated by Secret Service agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn, more relaxed than usual) and Dot Woods (a sharp Catherine Keener).

Tobin doesn't trust Silvia, and his instincts prove correct: As he snoops around, he discovers things about her past that reveal she would be as happy as anyone to see Zuwanie dead. But further sleuthing also reveals that her story's not entirely made up: A masked man appears on her balcony in an attempt to frighten her, and a dead body eventually turns up in a closet. And to complicate matters even more, one of Zuwanie's primary opponents (George Harris), himself a suspect, has turned up in New York for reasons unknown.

As a thriller, The Interpreter never matches the sweaty-palms intensity of Three Days of the Condor (or even Pollack's The Firm), but it's efficient enough, and it contains one dazzling set piece (mostly taking place on a bus) in which various characters — heroes and villains and suspects alike — all jockey to get the upper hand. Moments like these help disguise the rampant implausibilities that too often define the plot — or, if not disguise them, at least keep them at bay until the movie's over and there's time to analyze them during the closing scrawl. As for the mystery angle, guessing the identities of the villains isn't too hard — one can be deduced by merely looking at the sour-pussed actor cast in the role, the other by the incessant number of close-ups this seemingly minor character receives early in the picture — but what makes the movie fun is trying to figure out exactly how they'll fit into the nefarious scheme at hand.

Pollack is the first filmmaker who's been given carte blanche to film within the UN — even Alfred Hitchcock was given the "thumbs down" when he wanted to make part of North By Northwest there — and while the location shooting adds a certain level of verisimilitude to the movie's often outlandish scenarios, it also hints that the hard edges of the script may have been smoothed out in order for the project to receive such a blessing. Largely because of our xenophobic administration, largely because of world situations beyond their control, and largely because of internal affairs, the United Nations has had its share of bad fortune and bad p.r. in recent years, yet nothing in this movie hints at any of this real-world strife. So between the charitable assessment of the UN, the creation of a fictional African nation to propel the narrative (why not employ an actual African country that's had to deal in modern times with ethnic cleansing?), and a soft-hearted ending that takes the easy way out, it's clear that the Sydney Pollack behind The Interpreter isn't the same Sydney Pollack behind Three Days of the Condor. Just because a man mellows with age doesn't mean his movies should.

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