One needn’t be a delegate to eat at the Delegates Dining Room in the United Nations and enjoy one of Manhattan’s great unadvertised pleasures. Advance reservations, passport security clearance, and appropriate dress will do to admit a visitor into an elegant, affordable lunchtime adventure that may be the closest a nonemployee will ever get to experiencing the daily hum of ritual, mystery, diplomacy, and bureaucracy with which the world’s deliberative body has held together in imperfect harmony for 60 years.
Or you could watch The Interpreter, an elegant adventure of a different kind: Among its many accomplishments, this capacious and worldly drama directed by Sydney Pollack is a serious invitation — a mature filmmaker’s exhortation, really — for Americans to engage globally even while seeking local entertainment. (In this regard, the man who made Three Days of the Condor and The Firm is back where his heart lies, in the realm of crisp, engrossing dramas about power.) It’s also an old pro’s demonstration of how a politically relevant big-release flick can still effectively be done, old school — not snazzily, by no means perfectly (what with popcorn conventions grafted onto matters of current events), but squarely, in the best, most adult sense of the word.
In setting a thriller about explosive politics to the rhythms of moderation — the beat of the U.N. itself, in all its sober and sometimes maddening temperateness — Pollack chooses the unusual architecture of making the actual corridors, crannies, and cool modernist expanses of the United Nations the star of the show. The human luminaries Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn are mere mortals in proportion, their characters’ overplotted and intertwined personal and professional anguish a light distraction from the affecting themes at hand.
And the change of scale is tonic for both of them. Kidman applies her essential, milk-tinted stillness to the role of Silvia Broome, the sad, estranged daughter of the unstable, fictional African country of Matobo. She holds the title job despite a political activist past (and, it quickly emerges, present) that might eliminate a less ethereally stylish-looking candidate from the job. In her microphone booth after hours one day, she overhears something — she says it’s a death threat against the oppressive Matoban head of state due to give a speech to the General Assembly — and when she’s spotted, her life is put in danger. It is perhaps inevitable that Tobin Keller (Penn), the federal agent assigned to check her story, is himself a man of constant sorrows, or that despite uneasy suspicion about his charge’s own involvement in the plot, Tobin finds himself drawn to Silvia’s brand of hurting.
It is less of a given that Penn’s concentrated intensity — volatility pulled inward — should work so brilliantly against Kidman’s soft inaccessibility, her daintily careful African accent of indeterminate provenance. The unusual pairing of powerhouses, both skilled at intelligent risk-taking in the line of Hollywood duty, results in a strong partnership that overcomes the plot’s twitchy insistence on complications above and beyond the call of a movie about revolution, political activism, and an all-too-believable climate of terrorism. And Pollack, working with cinematographer Darius Khondji, shoots the stars with a kind of grandeur, lighting and setting them with grave regard for their wattage. (Catherine Keener, outstanding in a subtle, serious performance as Tobin’s partner, receives similar A-game treatment.)
The Interpreter argues for a lot of things — too many. The story advocates the power of words over more lethal weaponry (Silvia speaks eloquently about the precision of language, explaining to Tobin that ”if dead and gone were the same thing, there’d be no U.N.”), but pays attention to the desperation that can lead a populace to guns. The script (a relay-team effort, as emphasis and world events, including 9/11, changed the project’s focus over its long years in development) honors the importance of the U.N. in a way no permission-to-film-granting authority could fault, but still captures the obtuseness that is as much an institutional trademark as the contours of its famous buildings.
The film’s hodgepodge agenda doesn’t, though, matter in the end, and neither do the position speeches about everything from grief (Tobin is an alarmingly fresh widower) to protocol in the General Assembly, inserted between bouts of cat-and-mouse action. What does signify, and what builds with unexpected poignancy, is the movie’s expression of love — for an authentic New York City so fondly photographed, for a U.N. so remarkable in its very existence, however complicated, and for people trying to work things out in a civilized way. The alternative, The Interpreter makes very clear, cannot be interpreted as anything other than disaster.