Penn, Kidman Gain Political Thriller Diplomatic Immunity


The Interpreter, Sydney Pollack’s reasonably effective and old-school geopolitical thriller, sets its prologue in the Zimbabwe-esque southern African state of Matobo, but it’s a veritable Woody Allen flick of New York City locations, unfolding mainly at the United Nations while staging its most elaborate action calamity on a Brooklyn bus.

Pollack, whose Three Days of the Condor was a credible exercise in ’70s political paranoia, handles the action with satisfying panache, although pyrotechnics ultimately take a back seat to histrionics. Nicole Kidman’s evasive translator of mystery is investigated by Sean Penn’s grimly brokenhearted federal agent once she overhears what might be a plot to assassinate Matobo’s bloody tyrant when he addresses the General Assembly. More prim in this role than gorgeous, Kidman brings a plausible intensity to the role of a U.N. true believer with a hidden agenda. Her willingness to engage in personal diplomacy, even as a small army of cops pirouettes around the city discovering bombs and bodies, is a beacon of irrationality in a script whose occasional lack of clarity may have something to do with the efforts of five credited writers.

Given her résumé, the Kidman character is an exotic—and even unlikely—creature, usefully fueling Penn’s annoyed but fascinated incredulity. The principals don’t exactly fall in love—too much of the movie is fueled by their antipathy—but they have two showstopping scenes in which, maxing out on conviction, they suggest two star acting students thrown together to show their classmates how it’s done. Adding to the Method flavor, Actors Studio alum Pollack casts himself as a sort of director, periodically popping into the action to advise Penn or explain that “we’ve got a credible threat.” (The Interpreter is a distant descendant of ’30s Hitchcock films like Sabotage and The 39 Steps—does Pollack think that he’s Hitchcock? For anyone who recognizes him, his cameos function as a genuine distraction.)

The Interpreter is not only old-fashioned but unfashionable—it flies in the face of U.S. unilateralism in giving the U.N. more glamour and credibility than at any time since the old trick-or-treat-for-UNICEF days. Indeed, it’s being heavily promoted as the first movie ever allowed to use U.N. interiors as a location. Not so: Hitchcock may have been denied permission for North by Northwest in 1959 and DreamWorks for The Peacemaker in 1997, but 52 years ago, director Maxwell Shane managed to use the unfinished U.N. building for the climax of The Glass Wall.

A precursor of Spielberg’s The Terminal starring Vittorio Gassman as a Hungarian concentration camp survivor attempting to illegally enter the U.S., this unusual left-liberal Cold War artifact (brought to my attention by Bill Horrigan of the Wexner Center) is rich with New York City locations. Not only is The Glass Wall not anti-Communist, it offers the added kick of Gloria Grahame as an exploited factory worker.