The Interpreter

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, May 23, 2005


"The Interpreter," starring Sean Penn as a Secret Service agent charged with protecting a Robert Mugabe-style African dictator visiting the United Nations and Nicole Kidman as a translator who overhears a plot to assassinate the kleptocrat, received a rather warm welcome from critics and opening weekend audiences because 2005 has been so lacking in Hollywood movies for grown-ups. One suspenseful set-piece tracking a terrorist on a Brooklyn bus temporarily justifies the movie's thudding, screeching score, but, overall, this portentous, inane, and interminable film gives maturity a bad name.

Directors seldom ripen with age, and the septuagenarian Sydney Pollack, maker of "Three Days of the Condor" and "Out of Africa," is no exception. We like to imagine that directors are artists with profound insights into the human predicament, but they more resemble battlefield commanders relying upon the charismatic confidence and sleepless energy of the prime of life, not the wisdom of age, to make countless quick decisions.

Imagine that after months wheedling permission to be the first to film inside the UN, it's the day to shoot the crucial encounter between Penn, so florid and furrowed, and Kidman, so pale and smooth. But your leading lady shows up with a pimple, and all that your make-up artists can do is powder it down to a not-quite-subliminal blemish on her otherwise flawless complexion.

So, do you call Kofi Annan and beg to be allowed back in a week when Nicole's lip has healed? Or do you throw out your planned close-ups? Or maybe you could backlight her? Your 120 or so highly-paid crew members are looking to you for decisions.

Pollack, though, just tiredly plows ahead, making uninspired choices that fail to encourage suspension of disbelief in the frequently ludicrous plot.

Many critics have praised "The Interpreter" for shooting at the UN, but you'd have to possess, like Pollack and his squadron of screenwriters, a quasi-religious reverence for that trade association for heads of government (some of them gangsters like Mugabe) to see anything uplifting in the UN's soul-sapping International Style modern architecture. Inspired primarily by Le Corbusier, the muse of the public housing project, the UN's 38-story skyscraper reflects a time when trendy architects assumed that the Pantheon, Chartres Cathedral, and the Taj Mahal were all just crude random gropings toward humanity's ultimate style: the metal-and-glass box.

Similarly, "The Interpreter's" politics are an only modestly disillusioned updating of the "Kumbaya" era when liberals fantasized that the UN would lead decolonized Africa in offering moral guidance to the West.

"The Interpreter's" big plot twist is that Kidman, the palest of Hollywood's innumerable blondes, turns out to have grown up in fictional "Matobo" (in reality, a national park in Zimbabwe). Is she a femme fatale plotting revenge on the Mugabe-figure because he took her country away from her settler family?

Heavens, no! She remains the sappiest true believer in multiculturalism, even though the liberator-turned-tyrant blew up her parents.

And it's just as well that the script portrays the heroine as a na´ve nincompoop, because Kidman, although built on the elongated chassis of the classic femme fatale, is too bland for a dark role. She's the kind of obvious arm candy -- very slender, very fair -- that an extremely rich man might marry to quiet questions about his sexual orientation, yet her resemblance to a twelve-year-old girl means she lacks the bewitching beauty of womanhood.

Still, this gullible progressive might have shed sparks with Sean Penn's character if he had been written as an Irish-American NYPD detective at first disbelieving and then contemptuous of how Kidman's people gave up their colony and merely hoped for justice from those they had once ruled -- in contrast to how New York's Catholic ethnics have held on to the police department and, especially, the heroic fire department.

Unfortunately, Penn is supposed to be a Secret Service agent, yet, despite his enormous reputation as an actor, he makes little effort to imitate their famously neutral professional affect. He's just a humorless bore until he finally earns his pay by scrunching up his legendarily mobile features and boo-hooing.

Penn is to tragedy what Jim Carrey is to comedy: the man with the most gymnastic facial muscles. Unfortunately for Penn, actors who have succeeded at playing tragic heroes, such as Laurence Olivier and James Earl Jones, have traditionally been imposing figures whose downfall is cathartic. Penn, sadly, is a wrinkly little rodent of a fellow.


Steve Sailer ( is a columnist for and the film critic for The American Conservative.

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