Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sydney Pollack: The Interpreter

Sydney Pollack’s final fiction film is appropriately old school. The Interpreter is a thriller that asks the audience to care more about what people say than what they do. I appreciate Pollack’s sentiment here, but it doesn’t work as consistently in the same way that his best thrillers from the ‘70s like Three Days of the Condor do, or even in the same way that his more old school films from the ‘90s like The Firm and Sabrina do. The Interpreter plays more like Havana where I really like some of the particulars, but I just never found myself all that engaged by what was going on. Still, it’s a breath of fresh air for a thriller released post-Jason Bourne to not only have a static camera but also attempt to have a plot with characters that do more than just blow stuff up real good. Here is a film where the characters think and talk and debate instead of chase and shoot.

The plot: Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), an interpreter working at the United Nations, is seen one night in a hotel overhearing talk of attempts to assassinate the president of Matobo, Edmond Zuwanie. Zuwanie is your typical despot – initially a liberator but corrupted by power – and the United Nations is considering an indicting Zuwanie. In an attempt to avoid his fate, Zuwanie has plans to tell his side of things at the U.N. General Assembly. Since Broome is from Matobo, she is asked to interpret a meeting and realizes that some of the phrases and key words she’s interpreting are the exact same words and phrases she overheard in the hotel. Broome reports the incident and the U.S. Secret Service assigning agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and Dot Woods (the always great Catherine Keener) to investigate her claims in addition to protecting Zuwanie when he arrives. However, as the story evolves so too does the background of Broome. Keller soon comes to find that Broome was involved in some guerrilla groups in Matobo and that her family was killed by mines laid by Zuwanie’s men.

After all of the exposition and the setting up of the pieces (which is more interesting than the resolution), Pollack turns his focus on the male-female dynamic between Penn and Kidman, and allow me to contradict myself for a moment: these performances are too understated. I know, I know. The fact that The Interpreter is an understated thriller is one of the things I appreciate so much about it, but the dynamic between Penn and Kidman is so by-the-numbers professional that it borders on boring. And this is what I mean above when I say the film didn’t fully engage me. There were moments where I was totally tracking with The Interpreter, but when it slowed down from its already languid pace to focus on the dynamic between its two leads, it lost me in the same way that the Redford/Olin (Havana) and Ford/Thomas (Random Hearts) lost me.

That being said, Kidman’s performance when she’s not being weighed down by the over-seriousness of Penn is wonderful in the way she bottles up Silvia’s anger and fear. It’s an underrated performance that I would venture has been completely forgotten by people. Kidman had a really good, extremely underrated run of performances in the 2000s; between the likes of Birth, The Human Stain, The Others, and The Interpreter, she may not have been making the most widely seen or revered films of the decade, but dammit, she was knocking it out of the park with these underrated performances. And this is coming from someone that has never been a huge fan of Kidman’s work outside of Dead Calm, To Die For, and Eyes Wide Shut.

Okay, so back to her performance in this film: We’re never quite sure whether Silvia is genuine in her innocence and whether she’s truly divulging everything she knows to Keller, yet Kidman plays this tricky character so perfectly: her ability to balance between “potential liar we feel cold towards” and “lonely, grieving person we empathize with” is effortless. Silvia is a character that teeters between diplomacy and violence throughout the film, weighing the options of each throughout. When Silvia tells Keller, “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief,” there’s sadness in her voice that stops the procedural elements of the plot dead in their tracks, taking the time to observe the loss and pain of this woman. We don’t know if we can believe her – especially when certain truths are uncovered later by Keller – but at that moment we most certainly do. And that pain and grief is reciprocated, too, by Keller who has emotional baggage to deal with.

Emotional baggage: these are two words one does not expect to utter in a review about for a Hollywood Thriller. But, Pollack pulls it off. In an interview during post-production of the film, Pollack shared his apprehensions about making a thriller for modern audiences: “You've got to get the gun out real fast or the clothes off real quick. You know, they are interested in sensation, pure sensation. I am gambling, hoping that they will enjoy having to think.” And even though I didn’t care for every moment between Kidman and Penn, the two do share a great, great scene together that is the perfect antithesis of what Pollack is talking about above. The moment where Silvia lays her head on Keller’s shoulder, and he puts his arm around her, and for once it’s not about sex (like the gratuitous sex scene between Redford and Dunaway in Three Days of the Condor) or about the male protector assigned to the fearful female and the two inevitably sleep together, that’s the moment where the gamble paid off for Pollack. And even though not every gamble Pollack made pays off in the same way, this scene totally works as a nice, quiet moment that sums up Pollack’s approach towards making a thriller in 2005.

So, yes, even though The Interpreter didn’t always work for me, there’s plenty to love here. It’s easy to see why so many critics throw a word like “taut” around when describing the film. This is clearly a professional Hollywood thriller made by an old pro who is truly one of the masters of that system. Pollack’s ability to get clearance to shoot on-location at the United Nations (a huge coup since no other filmmaker, not even Hitchcock, was allowed to shoot inside the U.N.) gives the film a nice authenticity about its place. Like They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, The Yakuza, Out of Africa, and Havana, the setting is essential to better understanding the motivations of the characters. So, it’s great that he was able to shoot inside the U.N.; oh, not because a set wouldn’t have done just as good a job at replicating the U.N., but because it creates a sense of place that is special because it’s unique in how real it is. So when the Secret Service sweeps the General Assembly Room, it means more because they’re really there; it looks authentic already and the setting just adds legitimacy to the whole thing.

Even though The Interpreter isn’t filled with chases and shaky-cam action, it still made a lot of money at the box office, showing again that Pollack still had the touch when it came to working with two big time stars in a big Hollywood production. It was one of Pollack’s bigger hits, and showed that, in addition to his great career during the ‘90s and 2000s as a producer and actor, he still had something left to offer as a filmmaker. It has a great star performance from Kidman, some pretty tense moments that rely more on our ability to quiet down and listen for a moment than being jostled around by an “in-the-moment” aesthetic, and it’s pretty damn entertaining in a workmanlike manner. Yes, there are many parts that fail to engage, but it’s such a step above Pollack’s previous efforts, Havana and Random Hearts, that I’m saddened by the fact that we’re not able to see what he was going to do next because this felt like a resurgence of sorts.

Pollack’s last film would be the documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry in which he sits down with his famous architect friend and the two shoot the shit about one of Pollack’s true passions in life. There’s not much to assay when it comes to film other than it’s great to hear Pollack talk about his love of architecture with his friend, and it’s a reminder that Pollack was someone I could just listen to talk and talk and talk about whatever. There are countless other examples throughout the end of Pollack’s career that show a man just getting started. Pollack as character actor was one of my favorite things about his storied career. Every time he showed up on screen I smiled, eliciting the same response within me that my favorite character actors like J.T. Walsh and Bruce McGill prompt. There’s just certain supporting actors (James Woods is another one, although he leans more towards star) that pop up in movies that instantly grab my attention, and Pollack was one of them. He was always great at playing varying degrees of the same slimy heel character in films like Eyes Wide Shut, Changing Lanes, and Michael Clayton. These performances by Pollack standout in those specific films, which were all filled with great performances. Never too big for anything, Pollack also made appearances on NBC’s “Will & Grace” playing Will’s father. The comedy was broad, sure, but he nailed it every time.

Perhaps even more impressive than his late career as an actor was his late career as an Executive Producer. The resume is impressive: The Fabulous Baker Boys, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Sense and Sensibility, The Talented Mr. Ripley (directed by Anthony Minghella, another filmmaker we lost too early), Iris, The Quiet American, Recount, and Leatherheads. He also produced: Bright Lights, Big City; Presumed Innocent; Sliding Doors; Cold Mountain; Breaking and Entering; Michael Clayton; The Reader; and Margaret. Pollack seemed to always have his hand in some kind of project, usually films that were obvious Awards fodder, and usually films with movie stars attached (this is where he and Redford had their differences later in his career). If he wasn’t going to make another film as a director, it may not have mattered since he was so active as an actor and producer.

A.O. Scott sums up Pollack’s abilities well stating that he was, “Highly competent, drawn to projects with a certain quality and prestige and able above all to harness the charisma of movie stars to great emotional and dramatic effect.” He was a filmmaker that certainly had something else in him to offer modern audiences – if The Interpreter is any indication, these would have been films that acted as a reprieve from the hyperkinetic films and tired sequels and reboots coming out of the major studios system – an old pro with an assured hand and style that asked audiences to slow down, spend some time with him and his characters, and enjoy watching movie stars interacting onscreen together. I would have love to have seen his movie about Hollywood that he told Charlie Rose he had been taking notes on for 20-plus years. That would have been something. Instead of his dream project being made, he implemented elements of the studio system he loved so much into all of his films, leaving us with a slate of films that represented what he loved most about the movies, and even though it was a bumpy ride at times getting through his entire oeuvre, I’m extremely glad I did it.


  1. Everybody can get clear idea of THE INTERPRETER from the post. The post is filled with information that are necessary to understand about the film. Hope the film will be attractive & will be able to achieve viewers attractions.

  2. It was nice to read something on this forgotten one. Not quite a gem, but there is much I appreciate about this. I like the idea of it more than the execution of some its ideas, but it's incredibly watchable and as a big fan of Nicole it's a register I like her in and a generally good performance.

    I was always surprised at how surprised it was financially. But a good surprised.