"The Interpreter"
Dir: Sydney Pollack

Don Thompson

I found myself a little split regarding The Interpreter – on one hand I admired the message, on the other I was a more than a little troubled by the execution. It seems to me that films are all about moments, the culmination of those moments being the sum of the experience. Since films move, are active and kinetic, the way they flow, how they are put together and “architected” into a moving, spatial/temporal experience is important and can lead to success or failure. To make matters worse, differences of taste and personal values factor in (both from the filmmaker and the critic/audience), making film one of the most difficult art forms to master. Films in a sense combine all art forms, with the added complexity of human values thrown in for good measure. Because of that difficultly, I won't tag the The Interpreter a failure – far from it – but it is definitely a missed opportunity.

The reason The Interpreter fell a little short for me in terms of execution was simply because several of its moments rang false. I suppose I’m being a little hard on the filmmakers and actors, but there seemed to be something missing, as if they didn’t completely take ownership and responsibility for the project and its message. But the problems (as is often the case with film) begin with the script, which has some structure and believability issues that detract from the film’s overall effectiveness. For one, the fact that the entire story is about a fictional country diffuses a lot of the power of its truth, which is unfortunate, because the film does have something very important to say. But a key element of the narrative – a tribal story from Africa that sums up the theme of the film – doesn’t work because you can’t help thinking it is a contrivance, as is the fictional country of Matobo, a small country in Africa like Zimbabwe, with a once loved leader (like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe) who has turned against his principles and himself become a perpetrator of atrocities against his own people. You can’t help but feeling a bunch of white people are making up a lot of stuff about Africa, and it’s pretty bothersome – a kind of colonial incursion that probably made them all (Sydney Pollack, Sean Penn, Nicole Kidman, et .al.) feel a little better with themselves as they pocketed several million in salaries each.

This contrasts with a film such as Hotel Rwanda, which is based on true events, even if those events are at times fictionalized. With The Interpreter the events, places and thus the underlying power of the film's truth are all trivialized and diffused because the filmmakers (meaning in this case the producers) just didn’t commit to a structure a story based upon (what in my estimation could have been) actual facts about Africa. And those facts and atrocities are so profuse that its absolutely amazing that they couldn’t hang a decent story around them. So the broader message loses steam and is in a sense undercut by the lack of factual underpinning – the fact that the story “is just made up.”

This is of course an issue with many thrillers – whether written by Jean Le Carre or directed by Alfred Hitchcock – but in this case there is a broader political and cultural message (which other thrillers will not always attempt), and a missed opportunity for a powerful statement on war, violence and forgiveness. While the message still comes through, it is diffused by (as is often the case with Hollywood) weak leadership (i.e., a lack of courage) on the part of the producers. This weak leadership leads to a middling script (or more likely a good one that is rewritten too much – here there are three screenwriting credits) that directors, actors and editors have to scramble to save. It's a shame how many good scripts are gutted by weak producers. My instincts tell me this is what happened here.

That said, the message of The Interpreter is compelling and important, and relates to some deep tendencies in the human (and specifically American) psyche – decisions made about what “side of the river” we are on regarding justice and humanity. Without giving away the plot of the film, suffice it to say that Sean Penn’s (Tobin Keller) and Nichol Kidman’s (Sylvia Broome) characters are on two quite different journeys and meet at a crossroads where each is coming to see the truth in the other’s point of view. In a nutshell, that view, that perspective, has to do with forgiveness, and a willingness to move on if an injustice or tragedy befalls you. In the case of Keller (the federal agent assigned to protect Sylvia from African terrorists who threaten her) he is moving away from the very American attitude of “eye for an eye” justice that may give a short term satisfaction to the victim of injustice, but a longer term unhappiness as the victim indulges in revenge. In a very wise statement, Kidman’s character notes that while killing your (unjust) enemy may provide justice, it does not stop mourning and grief, while forgiving your enemy provides a path to healing (I’m paraphrasing). I couldn’t help but thinking of the late Pope, who by forgiving his would-be assassin made more of a statement about Christianity than any book or treatise could ever do. Or conversely, the victims of violence, the families that lose a loved one to murder or war, that take (it seems) great pleasure in the killing of the “evil doers,” whether that be through blowing up Baghdad or by lethal injection Texas.

While I may complain about the factual underpinning of The Interpreter, the bottom line is that the filmmakers probably decided many audience members would accept at face value that their fictional country in Africa was a real place, being that Americans are not apt to fact check their movie going experiences. That in turn tells me there is not a little bit of cynicism about the audience from (again) the producers – a very Hollywood trait. That said, the story is really not so much about Africa as it is about the American culture wars. By indirectly dealing with very American issues of forgiveness and reconciliation, we begin to think about the 9-11 bumper stickers that read “Never Forget” and wonder for how long we will remain a prisoner to the fear and rage generated by that fateful day in 2001, and how many will have to pay for it until we feel justice has been served. Unfortunately for the makers of The Interpreter, it is not a conceptual leap too many are likely to make. But then maybe I’m being a little too cynical.

-- Don Thompson

Copyright Web del Sol, 2005

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