After UN interpreter Silvia Broome (Kidman) overhears a plot to assassinate an African leader - the leader of her home country, in fact - the US Secret Service is brought in to investigate, in the shape of hard-bitten agent Tobin Keller (Penn). Of course, all is not what it seems.
Among the glut of freewheeling hyper-thrillers that dare not take a breather in case we all doze off, it's encouraging to see a wily old master like Sydney Pollack putting the emphasis back on the noble art of chinwagging. This is a dense, intricate story that demands your attention, so no flagging or fiddling about in your Revels or you'll most likely lose the plot. There's an old-fashioned sturdiness to The Interpreter's dedication to meaty, thinky message-making, even if the film is finally overburdened by its good intentions.
The marriage of politics and suspense came to the fore during the '70s, the pervading Nixonian paranoia and the wound of Vietnam feeding into Hollywood thrillers, and it's difficult not to read a similar, if subtler, resonance with today's global climate here. Pollack gives serious time to Silvia's world-view; this smart, shaky lady values the purity of diplomacy over violence, she repeatedly insists that the UN matters, and Bush, the subtext hisses, should take note. That it also dwells on African dissonance, a history of mass culls and fallen idealism in the fictional state of Matoba, keeps tabs on the current Hotel-Rwandan vogue for ethnic tribulation.
Penn and Kidman are set up as a duel - he crushed by personal demons, she nervously protecting her own secrets - that slowly thaws into a quasi-romance. These two consummate talents thrive in the long, dialogue-driven scenes, even if there isn't enough about their characters to really stretch either. Kidman, whose alabaster complexion speaks less of an African upbringing than being kept locked in an attic her whole life, nimbly adopts the regional accent and fraught expressions of the put-upon heroine. Penn skilfully does his shredded-machismo bit, big on wobbling chins and glowering stares. They do, by contrast, make a fine match.
Pollack's calm, controlled hand is evident throughout. When required to quicken the pulse he ably cross-cuts between multiple viewpoints, giving the film a nervous jangle. Through the middle-third he gets to finally have some fun, adding a magnificent, if slightly nonsensical, bomb-on-a-bus crisis (the best scene). How ironic that The Interpreter should be at its most assured when cutting loose and clichéd... It's also good to see New York - as in the real New York, not the make-do streets of Toronto or Montreal. Abundant use is made of the city, emphasising its, well, New Yorkiness, to give The Interpreter an authentic tone, a brownstone haven away from the dust storms of Matoba. And you can't fault the debut of the interior of the real UN building in movies (even Hitchcock was famously refused permission to shoot there). The camera seeks out the frayed lines and drab '50s décor of its hallowed halls and corridors like an in-built metaphor for the institution's struggle for relevance.
Where the film snags is in melding both its thriller framework and political philosophy. Too often the writers' mechanics become visible, credulity-yanking devices to get us from A to B and that all-important speechifiying. While stretching plausibility is all part of the genre, Pollack's movie never quite snaps back into shape. In this time of taut, all-encompassing security, the Secret Service's inability to shut down such a threatening situation just smacks of gross incompetence.
Solid, mature and finely acted, but intermittently daft. You have to respect its noble intentions and attempts to give popular film a real, opinionated edge, but reality is the thing that finally escapes it.