He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more…
Do not say, “I will do to others as they have done to me; I will pay them back for what they have done.”
I expected great things of Sydney Pollack in his latest film, he being the first filmmaker allowed to film within the United Nations building. Stretching back to his television days in the Sixties when he directed episodes of “The Defenders” and “Ben Casey,” his oeuvre includes such excellent films as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?; Jeremiah Johnson; Absence of Malice; The Electric Horseman; Three Days of the Condor; and Out of Africa. I mention the latter two out of chronological sequence because The Interpreter seems to be a combination of them, plot-wise.
Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), a U.N. interpreter, deeply believes in the work of the agency. One night, when she has returned to her booth to retrieve a bag of flutes she had left, she hears over the speaker a whispered conversation, “‘The Teacher will never leave this room alive.’ The words are in Ku, the language she specializes in because she had grown up in the (fictional) African nation of Maboto. “‘The Teacher” is what President Edmund Zuwanie (Earl Cameron) of Maboto is called. A dictator, accused of vicious massacres of his enemies, Zuwanie plans in three days to make a speech defending his record to the U.N. General Assembly in a desperate attempt to stave off charges of genocide before the International Court of Justice
We also heard this appellation at the gripping scene which opened before the credits. In Maboto an African drives two white men up to a run-down soccer stadium where several boys are kicking around a home-made ball. The man in the backseat, a photographer, is told that he must stay with the vehicle. The other two enter the arena, and the boys ask if they want to see the bodies. They conduct them under the stands, where they see what seems like hundreds of bodies laid out. As the two visitors emerge from the grisly sight, another vehicle pulls out, and armed men and boys jump out, As one says, ‘The teacher says good day to you.” He shoots the two. The third visitor crouches down and, unseen, crawls out and into the tall grass. It will be some time before we see how this connects with Silvia broome.
.Back to Silvia’s booth, suddenly the light comes on, revealing her to the conspirators below, so, afraid for her life, she flees down the corridors and out of the building into the night It is not until the following day that Silvia reports her overheard conversation. Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), an agent of the US secret service’s foreign dignitaries’ protection unit and his partner Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) are skeptical at first. They think she is not telling the whole truth. A background check on Silvia reveals that not only had she grown up in Maboto, but she had been romantically involved with one of the chief rivals to the current dictator—and her parents were both killed by one of the landmines set out by Zuwanie. Plus, her brother back in Maboto has been missing. If anyone has a motive for assassinating the dictator, it is Silvia. They conduct a lie detector test on her, but she is under such tension—a car driven by an African had tried to knock her over on her motor scooter—that it turns out “inconclusive.”
In discussing Silvia with his superior (played by Sidney Pollack himself) and Woods, Keller says that although he is suspicious of her, he thinks they must act on the possibility that she is telling the truth. It would be scandalous to U.S. interests if a foeign head of state was killed while in this country. Keller and his colleagues mount a 24 hour watch on her. This results in two incidents, one nearly fatal, and the other horrendous. As he gets to know Silvia, he begins to share a little of his own tormented past—like her, he is grieving the loss of a loved one. His wife, who had left him several times, but always to return, had been killed in a car accident. Her lover had driven into a bridge abutment just a few weeks earlier.
The fact that it is just three days until Zuwanie flies to the United Nations brings to mind the same period that the hero of Three Days of the Condor had to defeat the plot of the rogue C.I.A. agents. This time, however, the C.I.A. agents are the good guys, and the plot is far murkier than the straight-forward one of the earlier film. Although Silvia voices her idealism concerning the U.N. as humanity’s “last hope” of solving differences peaceably, she seems to shed her ideals a bit too quickly later on. Nor does Pollack use his fabulous setting as creatively as he might have to support her idealistic statement.
We do catch a quick glimpse of the wonderful sculpture in the side garden—a huge pistol with its barrel twisted and tied into a knot—but there are several more that could have been used as backdrops. For instance, the huge Chagall stained glass “Peace Window” just off the lobby, its imagry inspired by Isaiah; the permanent photo display of the aftermath of the atom-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the large statue of St. George Slaying the Dragon, the body of the writhing beast made from an ICBM; and across the street the statue of a man forging a sword into a pruning hook, with the inscription from the Isaiah-Micah passage. Of course, Mr. Pollack would counter that he was not making a message film, but a thriller, with the U.N. and the African massacres merely as backdrops. This is true, but we still could wish that there had been a little more substance to the film, as in some of his earlier ones or his television work on “The Defenders.”
For reflection/discussion (Contains some partial spoilers.)
1) What do you think of the way that Silvia views the U.N.—as the “last best hope” for peace? Compare this with the way that the U.N. was shown operating in the field in Hotel Rwanda: does it live up to its convictions? How is the U.N. regarded by many Americans?
2) For what country do you think Matobo is a stand in? How is Zuwani like President Robert Mugabe? What do you think of the picture of Africa given at a CIA briefing in which one officer says that Africa is usually controlled by genocidal dictators who come to power in military coups, ethnic cleansing, and corruption? Do you think this a view held by most Americans—or engendered by the media?
3) How is Silvia’s comment that she and Keller are “on opposite sides of a river” an apt description of their characters? What do we learn drives her, moving her to work at the U.N.?
4) What insights do you see in Silvia’s story about throwing a guilty person into the river and giving the injured party the choice of saving him/her, or letting the person drown? How does Keller use that story later on?
5) In the climatic scene with Zuwanie, what forces are at war within Silvia? Have you been in a situation, even if less dramatic, when you had a similar struggle—of whether to let loose of your desire for revenge, or to follow through to its conclusion? What do you think of the comment in the film, “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief”?
6) The words from Micah (and also Isaiah) are held in high esteem (at least officially) at the U.N., and as pointed out, included on the base of a statue near-by, but what from the biblical passage is left out—even if, due to the multi-religious nature of the members, this is necessary?