“Why would I report a threat I didn’t hear?” For U.N. interpreter Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), the very idea that someone — here, Secret Service agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) — might question her integrity comes as something of a shock. Stern, bright, and gifted with Kidman’s consummate pallor, she’s used to be being taken seriously. Or maybe just intimidating any man who dares approach her. Tobin, assigned to investigate her claim that she’s overheard an assassination threat against an African dictator, is not intimidated, though he is intrigued. And so their complicated relationship begins.
Sydney Pollack’s latest thriller (he made the very respectable Three Days of the Condor in 1975) touches on a range of topical matters, from diplomatic skirting of African genocides to U.S. intelligence agency confusions to lasting effects of personal and collective traumas. Hailing from the fictional southern African nation of Matobo, the multi-lingual, perfect-pitched Silvia has overheard an assassination threat — you believe her because you hear it too. But her report to authorities sounds suspect, bringing in Secret Service agents Keller and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener). (This partnership is ideal, movie-wise: he’s grieving over a dead estranged wife and she’s an amiably dry sidekick, introduced in a strip club looking bored, leaning over to warn a lap dancer not to “touch the prime minister” whom Woods is assigned to protect.)
Keller’s skepticism regarding Silvia simultaneously deepens and disperses as he hears about the childhood traumas that have brought her to the U.S. (These include her concern about her brother Simon [Hugo Speer], who remains in Matobo, perhaps involved in illegal agitating.) Working at the U.N., she asserts, allows her to devote her energies to sorting out the world’s problems through language, aiming to decrease “misunderstandings” between individuals and nations. Though it’s clear that Keller has his own set of devotions (Secret Service agents are all about self-sacrifice, after all), he immerses himself in hers, convinced of her worth when she’s stalked by a man wearing an African mask he’s stolen from her collection.
Silvia’s story is increasingly complicated, involving dead bodies, rebel activities, stateside terrorism, and an “inconclusive” polygraph test, but the diverse causes of the men seemingly arrayed against her — including the threatened Matoban dictator Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), who’s coming to the U.N. to speechify and make deals with the West (in order to maintain power and avoid trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague); head of his security detail Nils Lud (Jesper Christensen); and charismatic Matoban oppositions leaders Kuman-Kuman (George Harris) and Xola (Curtiss I’Cook) — intimate that she’s not only a victim, but perhaps a player in this mystery. While The Interpreter‘s script (credited to Charles Randolph, Scott Frank, and Steven Zaillian) alternates between preposterous and poetic (some of Keller and Silvia’s exchanges are lovely, others anomalous), and leans heavily on coincidence. The multiple deceptions lead to a harrowing, seeming terrorist attack in Crown Heights, Silvia literally in the middle of the action even as Keller’s multivalent, high-tech surveillance efforts prove insufficient.
The fact that Keller and Silvia’s relationship is premised in his surveillance of her (and consequently, her evasion of that surveillance or attention, as he must repeatedly query, “What are you not telling me?”), they appear perpetually to be standing, as she puts it, on opposite sides of the river. (She tends to use Matoban allegories and language forms — a language few people on the planet actually speak — to describe her situations.) Delicately acted by Penn, Keller embodies a peculiarly empathetic “America,” contemplating the usefulness of “revenge” for his wife’s death, but also able to imagine beyond such knee-jerk response when Silvia “explains” other possibilities (again, by way of Matoban traditions).
While The Interpreter allows for smart performances by all actors involved, in part because it depends so carefully on characters’ patterns of lies, it also allows personal trauma to displace the genocide (the film opens with a grisly double murder, one victim black, the other white, obliquely setting up Silvia’s persistent emotional, moral, and political connections to her homeland). While genocide is slowly gaining more media attention, in fiction and other forms, this film suggests — again — that it is most effective for :mainstream” (read: white U.S.) audiences when filtered through a white character’s experience and perspective. That a white woman, no matter how conflicted and compelling, bears the visible burden of this violent history obscures the high costs for black Africans.