Lost in translation

by Henry Farrell on April 25, 2005

I saw The Interpreter last night, and had distinctly mixed feelings; it’s an interesting film, but not a very good one.(warning: spoilers ahead).

This New York Times review, which claims that the movie “disdains anything so crude, or so risky to its commercial prospects, as a point of view,” has it exactly wrong. It’s precisely because The Interpreter has a point of view, and a rather simplistic one, that it doesn’t work very well either as entertainment or as intellectual enquiry. It’s two hours and six minutes of pro-UN propaganda; the “Interpreter” of the film isn’t Nicole Kidman’s character, so much as it’s the United Nations itself, a sustained effort in replacing violence with talk (and rather windy talk at that; the film gives us several snapshots of UN speeches on human dignity, education, etc etc). The two main characters are Kidman’s interpreter, and Sean Penn’s Secret Service agent, They seemed to me to be rather obvious stand-ins for the United Nations as an ideal (translation, interpretation, moving from conflict towards helping the peoples of the world to understand each other) and the US (a standard-issue movie lone cop, inclined towards violence and going it alone). Neither can understand the other. Kidman spouts passionately at every opportunity about the healing power of dialogue and forgiveness, and the UN as an alternative to violence; Penn’s laconic to the point of inarticulacy, and has pronounced unilateralist tendencies (in a bar, when he doesn’t like the music playing on the jukebox, he yanks the jukebox’s power cord from the wall, and then starts it again with music that he likes). When Penn finally begins to speak about his feelings towards the end of the movie, he has enormous difficulty, telling Kidman at one point that, “I feel like my friends must feel when they try to say something.” At the movie’s culmination, the two change roles – Kidman goes a little mad when she learns that her brother is dead, and threatens to kill the man she holds responsible; Penn talks her out of it, and persuades her to drop the gun. This allows the man to be arrested, so that he can be tried both by a US court for murder and conspiracy, and by the International Court at the Hague for war-crimes. The message of the movie is rather banal: it’s only when the US learns the value of dialogue and of the United Nations (and the UN accepts America’s desire to play a new role), that we’ll be able to tackle international war criminals, and the problems of Africa. On the one level, Kidman and Penn come to understand each other; in an especially hokey piece of dialogue at the end of the movie, Kidman tells Penn that they’re on the same side of the river; they understand each other. On the other, the UN and US start working in lockstep to prosecute evil dictators.

Hence my discomfort with the film – I don’t much like didacticism in my entertainment products, even when I mostly agree with the message being preached. Unresolved arguments are infinitely preferable to statements; they don’t ram a set of pre-determined conclusions down the viewers’ throats. Not only that: I’m rather uncomfortable with the movie’s use of Africa as a backdrop for a debate that’s being played out in the US (one doesn’t get much of a sense of Africa as a region; instead, it’s a set of vexing problems for US policy). The one stand-out sequence is when The Interpreter temporarily forgets its political message for a scary and gripping scene with a confusion of characters on a bus; it’s superbly directed. But the movie as a whole doesn’t add up – its action scenes mesh badly with its repeated attempts to hammer home a rather obvious political message. At best, it’s an interesting failure.



JR 04.25.05 at 11:37 am

My children (12 and 14) have expressed an interest in seeing it. Any views on appropriateness or value for them?


Louis Proyect 04.25.05 at 12:10 pm


The Interpreter

That’s right, the plight of Africans victimized by racism now has a face, and that face is Nicole Kidman.

Given that “Out of Africa” showcased Africa primarily as a great place for attractive white people to have sex, director Sydney Pollack is now a two-time offender in the “attractive white people teach us about black people” genre as “The Interpreter” may be the most blatant insult suffered by Africa since slavery.

The film revolves around U.N. interpreter Silvia Broomer (Nicole Kidman), who overhears a whispered plot to kill the visiting leader of the fictional (and dysfunctional) sub-Saharan African country of Matobo, President Zuwanie. Then, for reasons never fully explained, she flees the building like it’s the house from “The Amityville Horror.” It turns out Silvia grew up in Matobo. In fact, many moviegoers will be surprised to learn that she’s the most African person on the planet. She speaks African dialects, cites African folklore, practices African customs, and even served a stint as an African revolutionary, despite the somewhat glaring fact that she’s about two shades whiter than a bed sheet.

Warning: spoilers follow, but are so absurd you’re not likely to believe them anyway. Silvia confesses a past romance with an African rebel leader, but then notes sadly, “then the politics of my skin got in the way.” That’s right, the plight of Africans victimized by racism now has a face, and that face is Nicole Kidman. Silvia confronts the discredited, black Zuwanie with a picture of himself as a boy exiled to the slums by white colonialists, and declares angrily, “That little boy was my country!” At one point, Silvia holds Zuwanie at gunpoint in a thinly veiled indictment of Africa’s failure to govern itself. One notch higher on the self-righteousness scale and Kidman would have been standing alone in a room somewhere singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Movies that elevate Hollywood’s clueless, patronizing attitude to such a global scale have one name on their short list for male lead and one name only: Sean Penn. He plays secret service agent Tobin Keller, charged with ensuring Zuwanie’s safety. Initially, Tobin suspects that Silvia is in on the plot somehow, but they grow close through the regurgitation of their mutual emotional baggage. Other key roles are a photographer (white), Silvia’s brother (white) and the Matoban head of security (white). Black actors, however, do have their choice of several “dim-witted thug” roles.

Perhaps part of the problem is that three screenwriters are cited in the opening credits. Three screenwriters don’t improve a movie any more than three prior divorces improve a marriage. “The Interpreter” is offensive, patronizing, dull, flatly embarrassing, and in my humble opinion should be considered an international war crime.


Rob 04.25.05 at 12:21 pm

Any reviewer who spouts off about screenwriters in credits has no idea how movies are made and really shouldn’t say much.


dave heasman 04.25.05 at 12:29 pm

“and in my humble opinion should be considered an international war crime”

A touch of the Coulters here? For making a fillum they should serve 16 years in solitary in the Hague? This will be quoted back at “the Left” (TM) for ever. Thanks a bunch.


des von bladet 04.25.05 at 12:36 pm

Meester Proyect is quoting the hilariously over-the-top “Mr Cranky”. (Meester Proyect has no confidence in these new-fangled “hyperlinks” and tends to quote the whole thing.)

“The Left” (TM) is hardly implicated.


bob mcmanus 04.25.05 at 1:21 pm

I have detested Sydney Pollack for forty years. His middlebrow liberalism is a pornography of artless self-congratulation that make the Hallmark cards he imitates morally challenging in comparison. I resent every dollar he has been budgeted, and wish it had been given to John Sayles instead, except John Sayles doesn’t need it.

His movies make me feel dirty and ashamed. He is the worst America has to offer: megalomania servicing banality.


Brian Weatherson 04.25.05 at 1:22 pm

Whatever one thinks of the merits of the review, quoting entire articles in blog comments is an international blogging crime and should be swiftly and severely punished.

I agree with Henry’s comments. There’s no development of interesting views here, just a predetermined position to be plugged. Maybe Pollack hoped that we’d spend so much time thinking about the plot holes/incogruities that we’d just take on board the political message without thinking about it. Having said that, the fun of watching Kidman and Penn act for two hours almost made it a worthwhile experience.


MDP 04.25.05 at 1:45 pm

Nice post title! (Scroll down to “The Critics Agree!“)


Serdar Kaya 04.25.05 at 1:48 pm

I agree with you on the fact that didacticism can sometimes be discomforting on movies – or entertainment in general.

However, I believe ‘The Interpreter’ was about “the impact of the ‘past’ and ‘background’ of people in their lives and perceptions” – which I believe the movie did a great job depicting.

The US foreign policy was not that visible in the movie. Nor was it the center theme.


rented mule 04.25.05 at 2:12 pm

Bob McManus,

I agree with you about Pollack as a director: he sucks. He’s a lot of fun as an actor, though, don’t you think? Have you seen “Husbands and Wives” lately?


luci phyrr 04.25.05 at 2:40 pm

I thought lefties (in the US) did themselves a disservice by allowing the anti-war message to be boiled down to multilateralism vs. unilateralism. As if a Security Council vote, by itself, could make the Iraq war a Good Thing.

Focusing on the process instead of the principle allowed the US audience to avoid contemplation of the reason for the global opposition to the war – a majority of world leaders and millions of protesting citizens didn’t just want the US to ask for a “permission slip”, or were just considering their oil contracts with Saddam, or wanting to thwart American power…

The world opposed US action in Iraq because people have an instinctive understanding that war is horrible, and should only be used as a last resort – to avoid imminent, catastrophic harm.

Focussing on the UN vote also allowed US politicians 1) on the right, to paint opposition to the war as a function of French petulance and 2) on the left, allowed Dems to nitpick the process (multi vs. uni) while avoiding a difficult stand on the “principle” of the war.

But as far as the movie goes: I liked it when Michelle Pfeiffer taught Coolio how to read.


bob mcmanus 04.25.05 at 10:37 pm

“He’s a lot of fun as an actor, though, don’t you think?”

Good actor, yup. Always liked him. If Pollack wasn’t such an intelligent,talented, dedicated, nice guy he wouldn’t piss me off so much. He is like Spielberg (although Spielberg is better);there is a sense of misplaced ambition and a misunderstanding of achievement.

I just don’t get a guy who can watch Redford do “Downhill Racer” and “The Candidate” and make “Three Days of the Condor”. Or see Penn in “Mystic River” and Kidman in “Dogville” and make this kind of “product”. Lumet was commercial and a little didactic and yet made interesting movies. I am baffled.


steve sheldon 04.26.05 at 1:34 pm

I saw this movie over the weekend. I basically agree with what henry says about the movie trying to portray a message. I do really dislike that. One thing that I liked about the movie “Blackhawk Down” was how it just told the story without a message. At the end you were left to make your own interpretation… Similarly with “We Were Soldiers”.

I disagree with the comments that call Pollack a bad director. I’d actually have to say the movie was well directed. The problem was all in the writing and screenplay.

I didn’t understand the bus scene, or the first scene where they kill the brother and other opposition leader. If they’re trying to frame those guys, wouldn’t you want them around? Were they unrelated? Confusing…


Ereshkigal 04.26.05 at 3:42 pm

This allows the man to be arrested, so that he can be tried both by a US court for murder and conspiracy, and by the International Court at the Hague for war-crimes.

Let’s see… a terrorist (remember, Bush’s Global War on Terrorism identifies all terrorists, regardless of actual threat to the U.S., as enemies), captured by U.S. law enforcement agents on U.S. soil: what is the likelihood that the U.S. will try and convict the offender, and then acquiesce to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court at the Hague?

We’ve all witnessed the answer to the first part of that question after 11 September 2001.

Answering the second part requires a few facts that Pollak conveniently left out. The U.S., while a signatory state to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, has never ratified the treaty and refuses to accept it as an effective or binding international obligation.

Moreover, the Bush administration has openly expressed hostility for both the ICC and for other signatory states (see, for example, the American Servicemembers’ Protection Act of 2002.

John Bolton’s nomination as Ambassador to the U.N. underscores U.S. ambivalence toward the U.N. and its institutions. There is little likelihood of the U.S. changing its position on the ICC for at least the next three years.

Pollak’s use of “justice” as a plot mechanism is no more than a capacious crock of wishful internationalism.

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