Written by Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steve Zaillian, The Interpreter is the story of Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), a United Nations translator with dual citizenship in the United States and Matobo, a fictional African nation pretty evidently based on Zimbabwe, the former Rhodesia, where she grew up. Late one night after work, Silvia hears mumbles in her headphones, and, mystified, puts them on. Two unidentified voices, conversing unseen somewhere on the General Assembly floor, are talking about the upcoming visit to the U.N. of controversial Matobo President Edmund Zuwanie (Earl Cameron). Zuwanie is under international sanctions for human rights abuses. In an idea reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate, the speakers are plotting to murder Zuwanie while he is giving his speech to the U.N. Terrified with this sudden knowledge, Silvia rushes out of the building and makes an anguished phone call to her brother Simon (Hugo Speer), but can't reach him. The next day she reports the overheard threat to authorities.
The question in the film quickly becomes one about the truth. New York City police, the FBI, U.N. Security and the Secret Service, who are charged with protecting visiting heads of state, are all informed of Silvia's allegations. Secret Service agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and his partner Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) are assigned to Silvia's case. America very badly wants to avoid letting a foreign leader die on a visit here, even a dictator like Zuwanie. But is Silvia telling the truth? Did she hear what she says she heard? Or is she making something up, and if so, why? An investigation into Silvia's background reveals troubling facts about Zuwanie, Matobo and Silvia as well. When Silvia was a child, Zuwanie (obviously based on Robert Mugabe) came to power as a reformer. He has instigated instead a reign of terror. And among his victims were Silvia's parents and sister. Thereafter, Silvia and her brother Simon joined an armed resistance dedicated to overthrowing Zuwanie. In fact, for a long while, Silvia's lover was the resistance movement's leader Ajene Xola (Curtis Cook). Thus, the possibility exists that Silvia isn't really trying to protect Zuwanie's life but rather is engaged in some decoy operation trying to distract law enforcement officials in the service of those who want to see him dead.
The Interpreter is skillful at establishing Silvia's background and the atrocities Zuwanie is willing to execute in order to retain power. It is less skillful at erecting a web of interpretation that would account for her being a central player in an assassination plot. The picture would have benefited from greater tension in this regard. In addition, despite showing us a huge roomful of dead Matoboans, stacked like firewood to shoulder-height, the film never really makes us feel the terror and righteous fury of Zuwanie's opponents. In this regard, The Interpreter lacks the visceral wallop of Terry George's decisively superior Hotel Rwanda.
On the other hand, The Interpreter adroitly avoids most of the tired conventions of the thriller genre. The film never resorts to a car chase and doesn't stage improbable scenes where the good guys escape the clutches of the bad guys just to sustain the plot. Moreover, though it flirts with a romantic connection between Silvia and Tobin, the script knows just how far to take this idea and exactly when and how to back away. In short, the film refuses to go Hollywood and instead lets its characters behave as terrified people would. When Tobin and Silvia embrace, it's not a prelude to unlikely sex, it's in a desperate need for sanctuary. Kidman and Penn are as fine as any two actors in the world, and though these performances won't bring them award nominations, they are a pleasure to watch here, worth the price of admission in and of themselves. The film as a whole, however, though expertly made and generally worthy, is more of a ground rule double than a home run. The core material is so powerful, we keep wanting the picture to move us in a way it never quite does.