THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Interpreter is the first movie ever to film inside the United Nations, and that fact gives an amazing aura of reality to a picture that already pops with suspense. Nicole Kidman plays Silvia Broome, a U.N. interpreter whose specialty is an obscure African tribal language called Ku. One afternoon, there is a security breach in the building and everyone is evacuated. Silvia almost gets outside, then realizes that she left some of her belongings back in the sound booth. When she gets inside the tiny room, she hears voices coming through a microphone. The voices are talking about assassinating a controversial African dictator named Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), who is expected to address the U.N. in a few days. Many people think that the once-idealistic Zuwanie has committed genocide in his country, but he claims only to be quashing a terrorist underground. His speech is intended to defend his actions to a skeptical U.N.

Silvia reports what she heard to the feds, and Secret Service agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) is assigned to investigate. His natural instinct is to be suspicious of everything, and he looks at Silvia with a critical eye; he’s not sure he really believes her story. There are, however, a number of people who would certainly profit from Zuwanie’s demise. Keller and partner Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) start investigating them too. Things become more difficult to sort out when Keller learns that Silvia once lived in Zuwanie’s country. Her family was killed in a land mine explosion that his policies caused to happen.

By nature, this review must be short. There are many twists and turns in The Interpreter and to spoil any of them – or even hint at any of them - would be unfair. One of the things I liked most is that the story finds ways to surprise us without ever seeming gimmicky. The twists are earned honestly. It’s interesting how the twists work, too: at times, we don’t really know what’s going on in a particular scene, then in the next scene things become suddenly clear. This approach keeps us from figuring too much out on our own.

The performances from Kidman and Penn are superb. Penn plays a Secret Service guy mourning the loss of his wife. This tragedy allows him to connect with Silvia, who lost her whole family. The bond they create pays off in unexpected ways. As if he doesn’t have enough of his own baggage to carry, Keller is suddenly in charge of making sure Zuwanie is not assassinated and figuring out who wants him dead. Every time he thinks he’s got a solid answer, the case hits a brick wall. Penn is obviously one of the best actors working today, and I love the way he shows us how the wheels inside Keller’s head are always turning. He never becomes complacent, never assumes anything until there is clear, undisputable proof.

Kidman is even better. Her character has layers that we don’t initially see. Without revealing anything significant, there are personal reasons why she works at the U.N. Having seen violence destroy her homeland, Silvia has decided that diplomacy is the only solution for a country ravaged by violence. That said, she still struggles with her feelings about Zuwanie’s reign. If she holds him responsible for her family’s death, why does she report the assassination attempt? Why not just let him die? Silvia deals with that question in several riveting scenes. It’s fascinating to watch Kidman peel away all of the layers of this character. By the end, we feel like we know and understand Silvia; she wants to make a positive difference but struggles with the fact that positivity doesn’t always work fast enough.

The Interpreter is tense and exciting, but in the end this is more than a thriller. It’s a story about political idealism. People become fed up with insurgence and violence. They want to believe that peaceful solutions, which benefit everyone, can still be achieved. Diplomacy is a strong weapon, but it doesn’t (as one character says) always work as quickly as a gun. That’s the problem with these hot-button countries. Different characters have different views on Zuwanie and his reign, and subsequently, the film raises a lot of intelligent issues that travel beyond the scope of just this story.

A movie that has the courage to be thoughtful and provocative is always welcome, especially considering that The Interpreter arrives during a spring season that has been packed with idiotic comedies, banal action pictures, and lame horror flicks. There are a few scattered moments that seem a little slow or talky, but that’s all right. The Interpreter is exciting and well acted, and it really gives you a sense of how important the work of the United Nations is. This is a refreshingly mature story.

( out of four)

The Interpreter is rated PG-13 for violence, some sexual content and brief strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 8 minutes.

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