“This is how you put down a gun” -Sean Penn in The Interpreter
A lot has been said about the late Sydney Pollack’s 2005 drama THE INTERPRETER and much of it is largely from people who have forgotten how to watch movies. A relatively realistic if not procedural account of a story that plays out at a slower rhythm than audiences have become accustomed to – and for me, a welcome rhythm – the film is one of the most highly underrated and under-appreciated Hollywood films made in the past decade. Here is my reasoning for why The Interpreter deserves a Criterion Spine.
*Possible Spoilers* below for anyone who hasn’t seen this movie.
The film stars Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn and Catherine Keener and was directed by the late Sydney Pollack.
The story revolves around Nicole Kidman’s character, Silvia, who is an Interpreter at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. She is fluent in the fictional language of Ku, which is the native language of a fictional African country called Matobo. At the top of the story, Silvia overhears a conversation in the Ku language: a discussion between unseen individuals who may be plotting to terminate a head of state at the UN General Assembly. This is where Sean Penn comes in: a grieving Secret Service Agent named Tobin, assigned to investigate Silvia and determine whether or not there is a credible threat.
The story escalates beautifully to a climax that had me in complete disbelief when I first saw it in theaters and continues to amaze me with each DVD viewing. Silvia ends up in a room alone with the dictator of her home country and manages to get a hold of his gun. Instead of outright killing him, she makes him read his own words… words from a book he wrote when he first came to power. The scene is emotional and touching and is in and of itself a work of art.
“THE GUNFIRE AROUND us makes it hard to hear. But the human voice is different from other sounds. It can be heard over noises that bury everything else. Even when it’s not shouting. Even when it’s just a whisper. Even the lowest whisper can be heard – -over armies… when it’s telling the truth.”
Many of the reviews for The Interpreter are negative or if positive, are only politely so. A lot of people have commented on the slow pace and pretentious nature of the film, but a few have latched onto its brilliance.
It seems to me that audiences and critics alike have forgotten what good film-making actually looks like. This is it. What has confused people are all the Hollywood elements: the star studded cast, the on-location backdrop, the high concept plot – all the fixings that are usually tied into a nonsensical plot with lots of bang bang. This film has none of the latter and that seems to have thrown off a lot of people, whirling them into a cluster-f*uck of confusion that they can’t seem to get out of. It’s important that audiences stop watching the film as a thriller and cease going into it with the idea that it’s an action thrill ride of some kind. It’s not what it was promoted as being and not supposed to be. The failure didn’t come from the filmmaker but from the marketing company. It fails at being a thrill ride because it was never going to be a thrill ride from the get-go. To have produced an action packed thriller would have been an insult to the story, the morality tale of the story and the mission of the real UN. This is an honest film made by a great filmmaker. This is not disposable entertainment, but true artistry.
What strikes a chord with me in some of the reviews is just how uneducated so many people are to how certain character “types” operate in the real world. One IMDB user insisted that it is preposterous for an opposition leader of a small nation to ride a city bus around Brooklyn. Obviously this individual has never met a foreign national, living in the United States, under protection from the regime in their home country. If movie stars can ride the subway, so can former heads of state who are trying to “lay low”. Others are ticked that there wasn’t a traditional love story. Why should there be? There was so much emotion between the two main characters already and it was clear that they cared about each other, just as it was also clear that a traditional love story would be inappropriate. Have audiences really become so dummified by the Titanics of the world that there HAS to be an A-Typical love story?
Location Location Location!
The Interpreter was the first film to be produced inside the United Nations, with permission. This is a HUGE deal. These guys aren’t open to ANYONE and Pollack and his team made it happen. They should have received an Academy Award for that alone. On top of that, as a New Yorker and a fan of New York made films, this movie is a beautiful love story to the city and the city’s role in global issues. I saw this as the case when they were filming around the city some years back and I see it in the final product. This is the only movie of its kind to accurately portray an important part of New York City that hadn’t really existed in movies, at least, at this level of reality.
The Current Release
The Current DVD Release is remarkable considering the film’s lack of popularity with the critics. We can probably thank the film’s success at the box office and Pollack’s way of getting things done for the product that’s already available. After all, being that he’s the only filmmaker in Hollywood history to get permission to film inside the UN, I can’t imagine him not being able to have worked whatever he wanted out of the studios to get the release he felt the film deserved. The current release from Universal already includes an alternate ending, deleted scenes, Sydney Pollack At Work Featurette: “From Concept to Cutting Room”, Interpreting Pan and Scan vs. Widescreen Featurette where Pollack makes his case for showing films in widescreen over the cropped TV version, Audio Commentary, Featurette on the “Ultimate Movie Set”: The United Nations, A Day In the Life of Real Interpreters and so on. It’s a good disc and doesn’t need much else except there is one problem: not enough people are thinking about the film or the importance of its message. Not enough cinephiles are taking this film as a serious work of art ‘nor regard it as a respectable production achievement and this is where I believe Criterion could pick up the slack.
What Criterion could add: Prestige*. It’s not every day I come across a film so under appreciated by the public and cinephiles alike that I feel this strongly about. I’ve seen every feature film on Pollack’s resume and The Interpreter is, by far, the number one choice from his entire body of work that deserves a Criterion Spine.