The Interpreter

"The Interpreter" was made by intelligent movie veterans who can do better than this. They piled up pieces for a good thriller like sticks for a bonfire. There was a promising flicker here and there, but mostly they got a smudge.

A subtitle informs us that we are in the fake country of Matobo, Africa. Three men arrive at an abandoned soccer stadium. A group of boys escorts the men to a mass grave. There are hundreds of bodies – it’s quite frightening. On the way out, the same boys ambush the men with machine guns. Before one boy delivers the coup de gras, his victim forgives him.

In New York City we meet Silvia Broome, Nicole Kidman. She was born in the U.S. of South African and British parents, and raised in Matobo. Now she is an interpreter at the United Nations. She believes deeply in the UN’s mission: to resolve conflicts without violence. Someone says of her, "She is the U.N."

Late one night, Sylvia is alone in the sound booth. A microphone has been left open, and she overhears whispered voices speaking the tribal dialect Ku. They are plotting the murder of the Matoban president at the U.N. itself. Sylvia is afraid they have seen her; she runs.

Zuwanie, the Matoban President, was once a reformer. Now he is accused of human rights violations. The French and Americans want him tried at the Hague. Zuwanie protests that it is his two rivals who are the killers. In three days, he is coming to the U.N. to make his case.

Sean Penn is Secret Service agent Tobin Keller. Initially, he investigates Sylvia. "I study voices," she says. Watching her intently, he says, "I study faces." He doesn’t fully trust her, and we don’t either. Sylvia has a past so suspicious, it makes you wonder that Wal-Mart has background checks, but the U.N. apparently does not. But Tobin soon becomes her protector. He’s just had a personal tragedy, and he is such a raw wound, she gets under his skin.

The movie flirts with relevance, but it’s gutless. It wants to indict the war in Iraq, but is afraid of offending anybody. If what it wants to talk about is Zimbawe, then it should talk about Zimbabwe. But there’s no context of who did what to whom there, when or why. And yet, how it preaches. What’s the message? That violence doesn’t solve anything? Stop the presses.

There’s a neat scene where three plot lines intersect on a city bus that generates some suspense. But the movie’s third act is preposterous. Is the Secret Service so incompetent they would expect an assassin, but not cover his most likely vantage point? After an assassination attempt, would they leave Zuwanie alone for one second, even in a locked room? The more you think about the plot, the more it springs leaks. The picture just doesn’t work.

"The Interpreter" is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.

Peter Noble Kuchera

Originally from Columbus, Indiana, Peter moved to Bloomington in 1998. He completed four years of film study at the University of Minnesota and two years of film production in the Film Cities in St. Paul. He began reviewing movies for WFIU in 2003 and began producing on-air fundraising spots for WTIU in 2006. In 2008 he received a second place award for Best Radio Critic at the Los Angeles Press Club’s First Annual National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2008. Peter passed away suddenly on June 8, 2009.

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