But Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter takes an entirely different tack, using genocide in a fictional African nation as a plot point and suspense generator for what is essentially a home-front drama.
The film begins in the fictional African country of Matobo, where genocide has been abetted by the nation's leader, Edmund Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), a former rebel and freedom fighter-turned-tyrant.
But the action quickly shifts to New York City where a country in peril is less intriguing to the filmmakers than a cool Hitchcockian blonde-in-peril.
Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) is a U.N. interpreter raised in Africa who specializes in an understanding of its obscure regional languages. The gears of this slick, moderately entertaining story begin to grind when Silvia returns to her office after dark (a definite no-no in the thriller genre) and overhears an assassination plot against Zuwanie, who is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly.
Secret Service agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), who is in charge of protecting Zuwanie, initially suspects Silvia. He perceives her African past as suspicious and a good enough reason for her to take sides in Matobo's powder keg politics.
But Silvia soon transforms into Tobin's lady in jeopardy. The charismatic pair cuddle platonically on Silvia's couch and engage in late-night pillow talk as Tobin runs surveillance in an apartment across the way. And so the plot doth thicken as Silvia's devotion to her native Africa is contrasted - for the purposes of a highly serpentine, often implausible plot - with her devotion to the neutral diplomacy of the U.N.
Though both Kidman and Penn give good face, the best most consistently engrossing performance in The Interpreter may be the 18-acre United Nations complex with its blooming cherry trees, soaring lobbies and majestic General Assembly hall. Pollack underwent his own diplomatic trial by fire to shoot this movie - the first ever filmed within the U.N. - and The Interpreter profits from the authenticity of its setting. It is clear Hitchcock's technically masterful thrillers were a major influence on both the look and feel of Pollack's film. The U.N. architecture is as glorious and memorable a background to The Interpreter's action as Mount Rushmore and the Plaza Hotel were to North By Northwest.
Kidman wavers between roles that make good use of her ice princess aloofness and emotional paralysis. But in films like The Interpreter, her frostiness reduces her to another piece of beautiful architecture. Penn is his usual intense, furrowed self, though the screenwriters' (Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian) gimmicky backstory undercuts the individuality of Penn's performance with a cookie-cutter device of the hard-bitten cop with a tragic cross to bear.
Unlike other recent films about war, violence and a bone-deep sense of grief, there is no such feeling in The Interpreter. The sense of loss Tobin and Silvia dwell upon is just a fancy screenwriter foundation from which to build their romantic infatuation.
A loss in Silvia's own past makes her a believer in U.N. diplomacy over violence. But Pollack's visuals offer the contrapuntal assertion that masses of SWAT team officers, scary African dictators, explosions, dead bodies stacked like cords of wood and helicopter shots of Manhattan are way cooler than the U.N.'s bread and butter of handshakes and paperwork.
Pollack (The Firm, Out of Africa, Tootsie) has built his film career on slick, Oscar-courting dramas lacquered in an inoffensive veneer of Hollywood liberalism. Unlike the more paranoid and ambivalent thrillers of the '70s like The Conversation, The Interpreter is the kind of rollicking entertainment meant to reassure America that it is buffered from real world horrors. Backed up by the heart-pumping physicality of the thriller, The Interpreter inspires confidence that our boys have it all under control. Though the film talks a good peacenik talk, it offers some vague skepticism about diplomacy's ability to affect change when a swift and skilled police force is probably the better bet.
And the way the film uses references to genocide, homicidal dictators and AIDS gives a shallow, disturbing quality to a routine Hollywood thriller. Africa may have limited economic value to the West, but its steady stream of real-life nightmares could be its best export for Hollywood filmmakers willing to craft entertainment out of other nations' misery.
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