Talk about scene stealers. Nope, not Nicole Kidman as an African-born U.N. interpreter or Sean Penn as a widowed Secret Service agent. Those Oscar winners never had a chance. It's the United Nations building, pushing sixty, that turns on the charisma in its film debut — a smashing one — in The Interpreter. That's right, every other time you've seen actors inside the U.N. — even in Alfred Hitchcock's classic North by Northwest — they've been on a set.
Sydney Pollack, the director of The Interpreter, thought his film about an assassination attempt right inside the General Assembly needed the real thing. So he persuaded Secretary-General Kofi Annan to let him use the place on weekends, including the Security Council, lobby, conference rooms and gardens. Pollack returns the favor by making a potent political thriller that exchanges the usual senseless action and contrived sexuality (see Sahara) for thoughtfulness and timely provocation. The plot is driven by a paranoia-inducing conspiracy on a global scale. Pollack builds suspense at an unrushed pace that defies short attention spans. But hang on. The movie will grab you. Until its hard-to-swallow ending, The Interpreter bristles with the smart, steadily engrossing tension that marked such 1970s goodies as All the President's Men, The Parallax View and Pollack's own Three Days of the Condor.
Kidman as Silvia Broome, the interpreter who specializes in the Ku dialect spoken in Matobo, the region of Africa where she was raised. During an evacuation test in the General Assembly, Silvia overhears a plot — spoken in Ku — to assassinate the Teacher, the nickname of Edmund Zuwanie (a subtle and menacing Earl Cameron), the genocidal leader of Matobo. Zuwanie is even now heading for New York to address the U.N. Don't beat yourself up as a current-events loser if you've never heard of Zuwanie, Matobo or Ku. The name, the place and the dialect were made up for the movie. Why not just say it's President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe? My guess is that you pay a price for using the world's peace-keeping organization in your movie.
The plot gets more complicated when agent Tobin Keller (Penn) is brought in to suss out the situation. Right up front, he doesn't trust Silvia, who has lost loved ones to the Zuwanie regime. Tobin and his partner, Dot Woods (a no-nonsense Catherine Keener, who does nonsense so well ), have set up a surveillance operation across the street from Silvia's apartment. The Secret Service team follows Silvia when she slips away on her Vespa and shows up later on a Brooklyn bus that becomes a target for an explosive sequence, shot by camera whiz Darius Khondji (Seven) with the same skill he uses when he deploys light and shadow in the U.N. scenes, notably the attempt on the life of Zuwanie.
Pollack, back from the chick-flick hell of Sabrina and Random Hearts, keeps the mystery simmering. But it's Kidman and Penn who do the heavy lifting when it comes to putting a human face on the script's global politics. Theirs is an almost love story between opposites. She's tall, he isn't. She's sneaky, he's blunt. She's lost a family and a country; he's lost a wife and his faith. And yet, like two divided countries, they unite to form a bond. Romance? It's not in the script. Kidman and Penn, both astonishing actors, put it in their eyes, their inflections, their silences between words. "We never had time for a lot of things," Tobin tells Silvia. It's not easy to carry a personal story meant to parallel the frayed loyalties and fragile bonds inside the U.N. itself. But Penn and Kidman do the job with delicacy and feeling. The Interpreter cuts deepest when it focuses on what gets lost in translation.