PENN DOES SERIOUS FOR A CHANGE
In "The Interpreter," an intelligent new thriller by Sydney Pollack, Sean Penn plays Sean Penn; an aggressive, emotional skeptic in dire need of a hug, shower and a good night's sleep.
Or what I meant to say was that Sean Penn plays Tobin Keller, a Secret Service agent at the United Nations who is responsible for the safety of foreign leaders and dignitaries visiting the United States to tour and address to the General Assembly.
He and his partner Woods (Catherine Keener) have been called in to investigate a possible assassination plot that was overheard by Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), an English interpreter at the U.N. who was able to translate a dialogue between two mysterious characters picked up by microphones wired to her office where she was at - late into the night picking up some things she had left there earlier that day.
During routine questioning Broome expects Agent Keller to believer her story, but he immediately assumes she is either flat-out lying or is not giving him all the details that prevents him from accepting her story.
She claims the threat is aimed at an African dictator named Zuwanie (Earl Cameron) of the fictional country, Matobo. Once a respected liberator, Zuwanie is now facing charges of crimes against humanity, specifically genocide against his own people. By coming to the U.N. to address the General Assembly he hopes to justify his policies and avoid trial at the international criminal court.
Matobo is compared by some of the characters to all the other struggling nations in Africa that were once rescued by a leader only to be betrayed as soon as he became corrupt. During his investigations, Keller learns that Sylvia -- although born in the United States -- grew up in Matobo and was a supporter of Zuwanie during the revolutionary years. She speaks several languages, including Ku, a rare dialect of a Matobo tribe spoken by those who were overheard mentioning their plan to assassinate Zuwanie.
Further investigation by Keller reveals Broome's troubled past. Her parents were killed under Zuwanie rule and photographs of her at rebel rallies with machine gun in arms gives Keller plenty of reasons to assume why she would fabricate the death threat and possibly want him dead. Broome defends herself by saying her past is the past and she joined the U.N. because she believes in its role in promoting peace.
"The Interpreter" was the first movie allowed to be shot inside the actual conference room where the General Assembly meets. As a result the film benefits from the real location, adding depth to the story that is more believable because of it. Characters don't just appear in rooms when the plot requires, but must first get past the crowd of people, through security and up winding stairwells; details omitted by lesser movies filmed on soundstages.
"The Interpreter" is long at over two hours but you hardly notice the time passing due to its fluid pacing that at first moves a little slow but picks up to sprinting speed for the more chaotic scenes near the climax.
Penn and Kidman, while careful not to overact, bring intense passion to their characters. Tragedy has hit them both giving them something in common and a reason to turn to each other for comfort. The obligatory romance between our leads is surprisingly absent because for once in the movies a plot as serious as assassination is too important to take a back seat to a one night stand. If there's any sexual frustration in the room both characters do a good job covering it up.