With Bush our Nixon, and the Middle East our Vietnam, is the new millennium 1970s redux? If American cinema in its complacency is now at the opposite spectrum from that decade's self-searching filmmaking, Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter at least gazes back at a time when thrillers used to creatively feed off free-floating anxiety rather than evade it. No sneaky subversive agenda, sure -- a Godardian indictment isn't to come from the maker of The Way We Were. But he is also the maker of Three Days of the Condor, a high mark in the Cinema of Paranoia that in the fallout of Watergate had seminal works by Alan J. Pakula, Arthur Penn, and Larry Cohen, a sense for the breakdown of society's "given" certainties imbedded in their DNA. With Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, five screenwriters (including Steven Zaillian and Scott Frank) and much-flaunted permission to shoot inside the United Nations building, the movie has the old-school sheen of "adult" quality, which to me invariably stinks of a middlebrow good taste. Still, Pollack, a spry 70, remains something of a paradox (an effacing stylist?), and The Interpreter often purges the negative connotations that an avalanche of circumscribed movies has over the years lent to the notion of "intelligence."
Global where Demme's Manchurian Candidate update was steeped in U.S. anxiety, the film toils in similar tortuous conspiracies and secrets exhumed -- the opening jumps into the bowels of a fictional African state ("Matobo"), where a soccer stadium cloaks row after row of decomposing corpses. Cut to the U.N., where Kidman is one of the voices in the international cacophony, translating in the sound booths while diplomatic matters simmer in the assembly room below. Returning after hours for her music-class paraphernalia, she picks up sinister whispering about assassinating Matobo's liberator-turned-dictator leader (Earl Cameron), due for a visit in a few days, and in no time the "witness" bull's eye sprouts on her forehead. Elsewhere, FBI agent Penn soaks in a New York honky tonk, wedding ring dropped in beer glass and Lyle Lovett moaning in the jukebox, his numbness initially a job hazard ("They hire us for our forgettable faces," he says in one of his lighter moment) then gradually revealed as the melancholy Pollack's characters tend to sport at least as far back as Bobby Deerfield. The thriller gears are clicking before the two even meet, though, in its most subversive aspect, the picture unravels its mysteries at an unrushed, defiantly European pace.
The thriller genre is all about technical calibrations, and Pollack handles suspense tropes with neo-classical finesse -- cars bearing down on a moped, somebody lurking outside a window, and, in the money-shot, an update of Hitchcock's Sabotage bus ride. As often with the director, set-pieces come after characterization, the fireworks reserved for the muted shifts in feeling (suspicion, fear, recognition of mutual grief, but not love -- another genre defiance?) between the stars, modulated at a park bench and shuffled between cell phones. The past looms large over the characters, in Kidman's case her Uzi-toting youth as an activist in Matobo, which provides extra-thickening for the already hefty plot and adds political wood to the action vs. neutrality bonfire. Not that a big-time Hollywood production, careful enough to plant a white villain into the tyrant's staff, is about to call for radical change: "words not bullets" is the unofficial motto, mirroring the (invented?) African mantra of forgiveness. Like In My Country, another recent Western effort leaning on African philosophy, The Interpreter hopes for regeneration (as well as some kind of personal dignity) in the face of catastrophe. Not nearly as woundingly inquisitive as the political thrillers of old, but the gloss can't hide the unrest underneath.
Near the end of The Interpreter, Kidman confronts the frail oppressor with the old man's autobiography. "That child was my country," she points to a picture of the dictator as a tyke. The children in Bahman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly, the first feature film to come out of Iraq since the fall of Saddam, are Iraq, eking out a harsh existence in a metropolis of tents and rusty artillery carcasses somewhere near the Turkish border. The feel for scabrous war-torn farce, with maimed kids disarming mines with their teeth, suggests Hal Roach as much as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and precocious "Satellite" (Soran Ebrahim) the leading Little Rascal, wise to the values of information in ruinous times. Runty go-to guy, benevolent dictator, and big brother to the scraggly orphans (that adults figure so peripherically adds to the aura of dissolving community), he scrambles for a satellite dish so the dwellers can get American news and hear of the impending U.S. invasion. Shakier (but, knowing Fox-News, arguably far more reliable) info comes via the visions of an armless boy (Hirsch Feyssal), who arrives with his older sister (Avaz Latif) and a toddler, the fruit of one of the horrid memories stuck in a loop in her brain.
Persian cinema is often compared to Italian Neo-realism (in both method and setting), and Turtles Can Fly is Iraq Year Zero, babies stuck in minefields and forlorn orphans leaping into the void that is their country's future. Graver than Ghobadi's rhythmically absurdist Marooned in Iraq, the movie is far closer to his harrowing debut A Time for Drunken Horses, and worthy heir to the Iranian Kiarostami-Pahani mode of complex simplicity, its images burning with the anger and pain of turmoil while cooled by the lenses' mysterious tranquility. The most wounding creature scouring the hills is somber, dark-eyed Latif, trying to leave the baby behind when not staring at the edge of an abyss, her battered gaze worthy of Mouchette's never-to-be-forgotten Nadine Nordier. For her, as for the other characters, the most essential politics are those of survival -- the past is a chunk of a fallen statue, presented as get-well gift ("This is Saddam's arm. It's for you."), while the future holds little certainty beyond chaos. Ghobadi closes with an eye-level shot of Satellite on crutches limping laterally out of the frame as U.S. grunts run from side to side. "Don't you want to meet the Americans?," another boy asks. The camera is silent.
Reviewed April 28, 2005.