The Interpreter (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Stop me if you've heard this one.

The male law enforcement officer is on a stake-out. His job is to watch a potential murder target, an attractive female with whom he has already made an inchoate connection. He is in the apartment building across the street from hers, with a vantage that allows him to look inside two of her windows. He has the binoculars on her as he sees her in her bedroom, preparing to take a shower. Hubba hubba! Suddenly, his instinct tells him to move his eyes to the other window, where he sees the bad guy breaking into her living room through the apartment door, carrying a personal armory that would impress General Patton. The cop can see that the victim has no idea she is in trouble. Lacking another way to communicate with her, our hero immediately runs down the stairs in his building, across the street, up the stairs in her building ... the film cuts from the intended victim to the murderer to the cop.

Will the cavalry arrive in time ... ??

Oh, wait, you have seen that before? Well, apparently the filmmakers are aware of that because they changed the outcome. Our hero arrives too late. Mr. Baddie goes into the bathroom, hears the shower running, and fires a few rounds into the shower curtain. Then he has to turn his attention to the sound of the cop entering the apartment.

You're thinking, "What is wrong with that? It is very cool and completely realistic that the cop didn't arrive in time. That is a great way to keep a genre film from getting mired in the usual clichés."

Yeah, except for one thing. That ain't how it worked out.

Remember, the reason our hero went dashing to the rescue is that he could see the victim acting oblivious to the threat. But in the next five seconds, in the short time it took for the bad guy to go from the living room to the bedroom, our victim ran out the bedroom window and down the fire escape, leaving the water running in an empty shower.

We do not know this immediately. Cop and baddie have the usual gunfight in which they each discharge about ten thousand rounds in a city apartment. Bad guy hits the floor. Good guy runs to the shower, sees bullet holes in the curtain, thinks the woman must be dead, pulls the shower curtain back ... nothing but water. He then runs to the window, and figures out what she must have done.

It is a good scene. It contains both tension and mystery. It was one of several similarly well managed scenes which brought on the nail-biting.

There's really only one thing wrong with that scene. It couldn't actually happen. There are two possible explanations for her behavior. Neither makes sense:

Possibility One: she knew the baddie was there and made an impromptu escape. Doesn't make sense. How could the victim have time to make it to the fire escape once she sensed the problem? Based on the position we last saw them in, it doesn't seem that she could have gotten out of the window fast enough to avoid being seen by Mr. Baddie, who would be looking right at that window as he moved from the living room to the bedroom. How could she even know that the fire escape, not the front door, was the proper escape route?  (The last time she was frightened by an intruder, he was at the fire escape window!) And how was she lucky enough to have turned the water on before she fled, even though she was still fully dressed?

Possibility Two: she did not know the baddie was there, but had been planning to sneak away from the eyes of the Secret Service the entire time, so the shower was just a ruse to fool the surveillance. In this case, the scene makes even less sense. First of all, this requires us to believe that she narrowly avoided death by coincidentally leaving her apartment for a completely different reason at the exact time she needed to leave in order to avoid a threat she was not aware of. If she leaves just two seconds later, the baddie sees her and shoots her, right? More important, why would she turn on the water if her shower ruse was only designed to fool a guy across the street? Could he hear the running water from there? Could he see the steam behind a shower curtain? The running water could only be heard by someone actually in the apartment, so I guess the answer is that she read the script and saw that the water needed to be running in order to fool a nearby bad guy she was not aware of. Finally, if she wanted to escape without being noticed, the fire escape would have been a bad plan, because the last assault on her apartment had come from that very spot, so she'd have to assume that the Secret Service would be watching it constantly.

Either way, I'd also like to know how the baddie could have just walked in the front door while the Secret Service had several people watching the apartment. Exactly what was the purpose of Secret Service surveillance in the first place if their team was not in a position to  protect her from a guy walking in the front door? I guess we are to assume that the Secret Service was prepared for every possible evil scheme except the ol' "walking in the front door" gambit. How could they be expected to think of something that diabolical? Indeed, there were only two ways to get in her apartment. One was the front door, and we saw that the Secret Service was positioned so that they could not protect her from an attack from that direction. The other was the fire escape, and we saw that the Secret Service obviously wasn't watching that at all, because the interpreter just walked out of there without being seen.

So if they were watching neither entrance, what exactly was the Secret Service hoping to accomplish with their stake-out other than taking a shot at seeing Kidman naked?

Beats me. My jaw just dropped as I watched that completely implausible scene unfold. WTF was supposed to be going on?? And what happened to the old-fashioned "officer sitting on a chair in the hall" method of movie victim protection?

You can probably find dozens of similar logical lapses if you watch this film too analytically. A secret service agent figures out that an assassin will try to shoot a speaker at the podium of the U.N. General Assembly. He immediately starts lecturing the other agents about how hard it is to find people who will volunteer for suicide missions, and that suicidal terrorists can't be patterned - they could be anyone. I don't know if that is true or not, but have you spotted the complete lapse in logic? Why does the killer have to be on a suicide mission? The agent has assumed that a guy smart enough to get into the U.N. General Assembly with a high powered rifle is not smart enough to have an escape plan. Hey, dude - compared to smuggling a weapon in there, getting away is the easy part! In the confusion and bedlam, he might even be able to walk out of the building with the frightened tourists. There was no good reason to conclude that someone brilliant enough to pull off the assassination could not have an escape plan. Even if that seemed less likely to them than a suicide mission, they had no reason to rule out that possibility. So how could our hero know that they were looking for a man on a suicide mission? Easy! He knew he was in a movie, so he read ahead in the script, and it said so right there! Bingo!

Oh, yeah, and then there is our Secret Service agent. He's pretty much like any other secret service agent:

  • he makes sarcastic remarks to witnesses

  • he has really long, unkempt Spicoli hair (right)


I have to admit that I am not aware of the specific grooming requirements for the United States Secret Service, nor am I familiar with their interrogation training, but I'm still going to take a wild guess that sarcasm and Spicoli hair are probably not part of the program.

Oh, well, enough nitpicking. I'm going to end up saying that this film is not so bad, so all of my quibbling and whining has simply been to offer you some perspective on the reviews that have called this a smartly written adult thriller. It is nothing of the kind. It is a standard TV police procedural, similar to hundreds of films you've seen before, prone to the same problems.

Compared to the run-of-the-mill TV version of the same story, it does have these additional positives:

  • There at least three excellent and well choreographed scenes in which the protagonist races against time and/or the antagonists. Only the final one results in the expected outcome.
  • The two leads are two of the very best actors in the English-speaking world (Kidman, Penn), and it is unusual to see performers of that caliber in a genre film.
  • Both lead actors are especially effective at portraying grief, and the story line gives them both backgrounds which make use of that, thus layering in some serious drama with the usual police procedurals. Kidman may now be the all-time cinema grief queen, her only serious competitors being Susan Hayward and Penn himself. I don't mean to imply that the interpreter's (Kidman's) unfortunate personal history is superfluous bullshit. To the contrary, it is absolutely essential to the story. In fact, without it there is only half of a movie. Given that, the casting of Kidman was a real coup!
  • The script does not muck up the story with a silly romance between the cop and the interpreter.
  • The film is the first in the past five decades to be allowed to film inside the U.N. building. To the best of my knowledge, the only previous film to incorporate genuine U.N. interiors was Maxwell Shane's 1953 cold war thriller The Glass Wall.

The cop's (Penn's) grief, by the way, is just something that was tacked on for added character depth. It seems that his wife left him for the zillionth time, but she was just about to return when she got in a fatal car crash, and now  ...  the cop keeps calling his own home phone, just to hear her voice on the answering machine, and so he can have a good cry on camera. Unlike the back-story for the interpreter, the cop's life story could have been retained or discarded without affecting the plot.

In addition to some of the negatives I noted above, it should be noted that the conversations between Kidman and Penn are irritating, boring and pretentious. At one point Kidman explains that she could not be in on the assassination plot, even though she is from the same country and despises the leader being targeted. Why not? After all, the leader is responsible for the murders of all of her family, isn't he? Because "vengeance is just a lazy form of grief," and she's not lazy. Oh, well, that's OK then. Sorry for asking. She then goes on to explain her point with some allegorical tale which is taken from the native people of her home country, and involves foxes and grapes and turtles and rabbits and victims and swimming aardvarks and prodigal sons. Frankly, I was getting tired of her answering every question with a parable, riddle, or fable. In addition to studying the folk legends of her country, she seems to have memorized everything ever said by Aesop, Confucius, and Jesus.

Although it was billed as a "political thriller", The Interpreter doesn't really have any strong political position more controversial than "we should talk to each other instead of shooting" and "genocide is a bad thing."  In fact, the evil "genocidal" dictator in the film doesn't really seem to be genocidal at all. Part of the movie's situation is similar to the so-called Rwandan genocide in the early 90s, in which President Paul Kagame was blamed for the wholesale slaughter of Tutsis. The movie's particular power-mad dictator, Edward Zuwanie, does not seem to choose to kill people based on their tribal membership or skin color. I gathered from the story that he simply kills everyone he needs to kill in order to hold on to absolute power, especially those who disagree with him. Is the film's dictator a mass murderer? Sure. Is he Evil? Goes without saying. Does he torture his political opponents? Seems like it. Did he nearly destroy his country? Possibly. Is he genocidal? Eh... not so much. It seems that the word "genocide" was hauled out as the all-purpose shibboleth designed to instantly identify Zuwanie to film-goers as a member of the most detestable club known to man. It's the scriptwriter's equivalent of Godwin's Law: when in doubt about how to establish your character's extreme depth of villainy, compare him to Hitler.

He is comparable to Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, guilty of massive human rights abuses committed in his own self-interest, maybe even of mass murder, but not necessarily of genocide. The film's story is more similar to Robert Mugabe's than Paul Kagame's because it portrays the leader as originally having come to power as an idealist who cast off oppressive colonialism and built a coalition government. It also portrays him as addressing the U.N. to present his case. That's Mugabe's story. Kagame, on the other hand, came to power by ... well, many say he came to power by ordering the assassination of the previous President.

There were three major political thrillers that came out right about at the time of Nixon's resignation: The Conversation 1974, The Parallax View 1974, Three Days of the Condor 1975. In that highly polarized time, it was all the rage for liberals to express their opinions in the guise of thrillers. (It's like a parable. Kidman's character would love it!) The director of Three Days of the Condor was Sydney Pollack, who is also the director of The Interpreter, so this is presumably Pollack's take on a revival or update of the 70s-style political conspiracy thriller. Big Syd did OK, but The Interpreter is no masterpiece, and is not especially memorable, despite all the star power. It is just an above average film with a pretty good modern take on a long neglected sub-genre. No more or less.



  • Alternate Ending
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Sydney Pollack at Work: From Concept to Cutting Room
  • A Day in the Life of Real Interpreters
  • The Ultimate Movie Set: The United Nations


There are two strippers. One is topless, one not. I don't know which one was topless. The two women are Bridget Doerksen and Ana Maria Lupo.

The topless one was blond, so the one with the Germanic name (Doerksen) might be a good guess, but who knows these days?

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus out of four stars: between two and a half stars and three. James Berardinelli 3/4, Roger Ebert 3/4, BBC 3/5.

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It opened in the #1 spot in the USA, with a $22 million weekend, and finished with a domestic gross of $72 million. The production budget was about $80 million.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C, possibly a C+. It was somewhat overvalued by the critics, but IMDb voters have it pegged about right. It is a movie too good to pan, but not really good enough to recommend except for genre fanatics or as a safe compromise to controversial alternatives.

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