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‘Interpreter’: thriller or MacGuffin?

Penn and Kidman star in this flawed but well-made film. By John Hartl

“MacGuffin” is the word Hitchcock used to describe a plot device that is little more than a pretext for creating action and suspense. In “Notorious,” for example, Hitchcock’s MacGuffin was fugitive Nazis (and their lust for uranium), but the movie was really about the complicated tensions, romantic and otherwise, between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.

Sydney Pollack’s new political thriller, “The Interpreter,” includes several Hitchcock touches, including a “Rear Window” moment when voyeurism turns lethal, a “Man Who Knew Too Much” political assassination attempt, and a “North by Northwest”-like use of the United Nations building.

Pollack even got to film there, with the support of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and he does take advantage of the building’s blocky grandeur. Hitchcock was forced to fake it on a Hollywood sound stage.

“The Interpreter” is an intelligent, well-made, well-meaning movie, but the MacGuffin sometimes threatens to take over. When Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman start talking politics, taking up sides on whether diplomacy or pre-emptive action works best, it’s as if Grant and Bergman had called off their nuzzling/espionage sessions to discuss the evils of Nazism.

While this never quite brings the movie to a halt, it does call attention to the “author’s message” that drives the screenplay, which is partly the work of Scott Frank (“Get Shorty”) and Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”). Whenever they get a chance to work in a contemporary angle, like a New York terrorist attack or a momentous U.N. visit by an African dictator, they pump it up for all its resonance.

The movie begins at a deserted African soccer stadium, with the political murder of a briefly glimpsed character whose importance to the story will not become evident until much later. Meanwhile, in New York, a U.N. interpreter, Silvia Broome (Kidman), overhears what seems to be part of an assassination plot. Penn plays Tobin Keller, the Secret Service agent who investigates her and thinks she’s lying.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the script is the compromised nature of the characters. Broome argues for “quiet diplomacy,” but she has a strong motive for revenge in her background. She would hardly grieve if the assassination were carried out, yet she insists she’d rather see its target “gone” rather than “dead.” Keller seems a standard-issue macho character at first, yet he’s devastated by recent tragedy, and gradually he learns to trust Broome.

Still, there’s something thin and schematic about these people, and Penn and Kidman aren’t given a lot of room to play with their inconsistencies. Given just a few short scenes, Catherine Keener, playing Keller’s tough assistant, makes a more vivid impression. Pollack himself boosts the movie’s energy level in a cameo role as Keller’s single-minded boss.

Pollack and his writers only rarely find the proper balance between the personal and the political; the hint of a romance between the central characters doesn’t help. Pollack’s most Hitchcockian movie, “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), managed to make it all work, partly because he paid so little attention to the MacGuffin.