It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Sydney Pollack's "The Interpreter" is a taut and intelligent thriller, centering on Nicole Kidman as an interpreter at the United Nations, and Sean Penn as a Secret Service agent. And, no, they don't have romantic chemistry: For once, the players in a dangerous game are too busy for sex -- too busy staying alive and preventing murder. They do, however, develop an intriguing closeness, based on shared loss and a sympathy for the other person as a human being. There's a moment when she rests her head on his shoulder, and he puts a protectively arm around her, and we admire the movie for being open to those feelings.
The story was filmed largely on location in and around the United Nations, including the General Assembly Room; it's the first film given permission to do that. I mention the location because it adds an unstated level of authenticity to everything that happens. There's a scene where a security detail sweeps the building, and it feels like a documentary. Like when Drew Barrymore runs onto the field at Fenway Park in "Fever Pitch," the U.N. scenes provide what Werner Herzog calls "the voodoo of location" -- the feeling of the real thing instead of the artifice of sets and special effects.
The movie has a realism of tone, too. This isn't a pumped-up techno-thriller, but a procedural, in which Secret Service agents Keller (Penn) and Woods (Catherine Keener) are assigned to the U.N. after an interpreter named Silvia Broome (Kidman) overhears a death threat. The threat is against an African dictator named Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), once respected, now accused of genocide. He announces that he will address the General Assembly to defend his policies. The head of the Secret Service (played by Pollack himself) says the last thing the United States needs, at this point in history, is the assassination of a foreign leader on American soil.
Zuwanie is clearly intended to represent Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, also once hailed as a liberator, now using starvation as a political tool. Sylvia, we learn, grew up in Zuwanie's country, was a supporter of Zuwanie, saw her parents killed, became disillusioned. She speaks many languages, including Ku, the tongue of the (fictional) country of Matobo, and five years ago became a UN interpreter.