Are we over 9/11? These days you can’t move without tripping over a Hollywood movie about global catastrophe, much of it happening in Manhattan. In Sydney Pollack’s ambitious new political thriller The Interpreter, Nicole Kidman plays a United Nations translator who becomes a moving target of more than one murky agency when she slips on her earphones during a routine bomb-scare evacuation and overhears a whispered exchange that suggests a visiting African head of state is scheduled for assassination. I can think of better casting than Kidman — Cate Blanchett, say, or Kate Winslet, or the sorely neglected Madeleine Stowe — to play a sophisticate as cerebral as Silvia Broome, a multilingual former activist in the same fictitious African country as the menaced potentate. Still, Kidman looks delectable in a careless ponytail and rimless glasses, gliding around New York on a beat-up Vespa, and she makes a fetching Beauty to the stoically wounded Beast assigned by the FBI to give her round-the-clock protection — or is it surveillance? By way of introduction, agent Tobin Keller, whom we have briefly glimpsed drowning his wedding ring in a double Scotch at a nearby bar, tells Silvia, “They hire us for our forgettable faces.” Since the patently unforgettable mug in question belongs to Sean Penn, who is known for taking his face and the gray matter behind it extremely seriously, we must be grateful that the crisp screenplay credited to Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian has given him a saving feel for irony, and behind his character’s stern professional exterior, an inviting softness of temperament. Not to mention a pleasant nocturnal habit of monitoring his attractive charge through binoculars from an adjacent high-rise.
In the way of all thrillers, Keller and Silvia come to their uneasy partnership toting hastily sketched tragic back stories that serve, on the one hand, to cement their growing bond, on the other to further the movie’s endlessly curling plot, which winds back and forth between the U.N. building, the land of Matobo (a thinly veiled blend of Zimbabwe and Mozambique) and back to Crown Heights for an explosive set piece that could only have been staged at a safe four years’ remove from the Twin Towers tragedy. For all Pollack’s strenuous efforts to spread suspicion among several possible assassins — including Silvia herself, who comes under scrutiny when it turns out that she was once active in a militant wing of Matobo’s resistance movement and has ample reason to want to see the dictator Zuwanie (Earl Cameron) dead — if you’re on your toes you’ll have fingered at least one of the perps 20 minutes into the movie.
In truth Pollack has always been stronger and livelier addressing gender politics (one thinks of Tootsie and The Way We Were, if not the comatose Sabrina) than he is at making political thrillers. Kidman and Penn’s moody chemistry make of The Interpreter a compelling love story, however understated. But notwithstanding a neat little plot fillip at the end, as a thriller the film is no more than competent and enjoyable in the way that Pollack’s The Firm was, with its equally functional visual style, and certainly no more exciting. Still, there’s fascination in the movie’s mapping of a political landscape — part wish, part fear — that reveals as much about the contradictions in liberal American attitudes in the international arena as it does about global terror and diplomacy in a post-9/11 world. Zuwanie is a familiar Third World figure, the liberator turned corrupt dictator, and though Pollack is careful to acknowledge the legacy of white colonialism and to balance the despot with a more demotic black luminary who likes to take the bus and commune with the people of Manhattan, Zuwanie’s resemblance to Zimbabwe’s murderous Robert Mugabe is powerful enough to make one wish that his assassins would have at him and be done with it.
When it comes to the United Nations, though, the movie turns to Jell-O. Whether Pollack was softened up by his meetings with U.N. brass (all the way up to Kofi Annan), or by his own gentlemanly Midwestern liberalism, he is alarmingly circumspect about that august body. The dialogue is studded with high-minded proclamations about the triumph of diplomacy and order over vengeance and chaos, and dappled with homespun African proverbs about the saving balm of charitable behavior. That’s all very nice, but you would hardly know from The Interpreter that we’re talking about one of the most impotent organizations on the global stage, at once struggling with its own internal sources of corruption and, often as not, serving as a vassal of various national or regional interests, not least of all those of the United States. For all its contempo global reach, The Interpreter comes off as a throwback to the thrillers of the Cold War, only now with different nations as enemies. You can hardly hear the still, small voice that, halfway through the movie, quietly murmurs, “There are no nations any more, only companies,” and falls away.?
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Kontroll, a Hungarian quasi-thriller of considerable gloomy charm, won the Prix de la Jeunesse Award at Cannes last year, and it’s easy to see why. Set entirely in the depths of the Budapest subway system — at no point in its 106-minute running time do we see the light of day — the movie combines high-speed rail chases and schoolboy prankishness with the kind of romantic alienation that many young people wear with their basic black and assume will see them through the rest of their lives. Writer-director Nimród Antal, still in his early 30s, lived in Los Angeles long enough to acquire a slight Tarantino swagger. But then he went home to study filmmaking, and his movie is unmistakably European in style — Tarkovsky, by way of the Kaurismäkis, with a dab of Jim Jarmusch. The plot, such as it is, centers on a group of ticket inspectors, a wan, lethargic breed apparently much reviled by Budapest commuters. At their helm is Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi), a moody young refugee from a better life aboveground with the hollow-eyed good looks of a young Paul Henreid. Though he manages to keep his little band of losers together despite bullying from management, competition from a rival group of inspectors and intermittent provocations by a fleet-footed teenage stowaway, Bulcsú appears to have given up on life. To make matters worse, he’s haunted by a mysterious hooded figure who creeps up behind commuters and pushes them into the path of oncoming trains. Then comes love, and hope, in a form only an Eastern European surrealist could conjure up, that of an exquisite woman in a teddy-bear costume with a ludicrously padded rear end.
Kontroll is goofy, smart and beguiling, and it whips up an almost unbearable luster from its grimy subterranean labyrinth — a gorgeously lit image of Bulcsú sitting disconsolate atop a huge vent in the tunnel is unforgettably wistful. What the movie lacks is a point, unless you count Bulcsú’s rote existential quest. But Nimród Attal has time on his side, and we should expect to see much more, and much better, from this talented young filmmaker.
THE INTERPRETER | Directed by SYDNEY POLLACK | Written by CHARLES RANDOLPH, SCOTT FRANK and STEVEN ZAILLIAN | Produced by TIM BEVAN, ERIC FELLNER and KEVIN MISHER | Released by UNIVERSAL PICTURES | Citywide
KONTROLL | Written and directed by NIMRÓD ANTAL | Produced by TAMÁS HUTLASSA | Released by ThinkFilm | At selected theaters