Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) is an interpreter working at the United Nations in New York City. She was raised in the Republic of Matobo, a fictional African country, but also holds US citizenship. The U.N. is considering indicting Edmond Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), Matobo's president, to stand trial in the International Criminal Court. Initially a liberator, over the past 20 years he has become as corrupt and tyrannical as the government he overthrew, and is now responsible for ethnic cleansing and other atrocities within Matobo. Zuwanie is soon to visit the U.N. and put forward his own case to the General Assembly, in an attempt to avoid the indictment.
A security scare forces the evacuation of the U.N. building, and, as Silvia returns at night to reclaim some personal belongings, she overhears two men discussing an assassination plot in Ku (an African dialect she understands). Silvia runs from the building when those discussing the plot become aware of her presence. The next day, Silvia recognizes words in a meeting, where she is interpreting, from phrases she overheard the night before, and reports the incident to U.N. security; the plot's target appears to be Zuwanie himself. They, in turn, call in the U.S. Secret Service, who assign Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) to investigate, as well as protect Zuwanie when he arrives. Keller, whose estranged wife was accidentally killed just days earlier, learns that Silvia has, in the past, been involved in a Matoban guerrilla group, that her parents and sister were killed by land mines laid by Zuwanie's men, and that she has dated one of Zuwanie's political opponents. Although Keller is suspicious of Silvia's story, the two grow close, in part because of their shared grief, and Keller ends up protecting her from attacks on her person. Silvia later finds that her brother Simon and her lover Xola were killed (as shown in the opening scene).
The purported assassin is discovered (and shot to death) while Zuwanie is in the middle of his address to the General Assembly, and security personnel rush Zuwanie to a safe room for his protection. Silvia, anticipating this, has been hiding in the safe room, and confronts Zuwanie and intends to kill him herself. Keller determines that the assassination plot is a false flag operation created by Zuwanie to gain credibility that his rivals are terrorists and to deter potential supporters of his removal. Keller rushes to the safe room and arrives just in time to prevent Silvia from murdering Zuwanie. Zuwanie is indicted, and Silvia is expelled from the U.S., returning home to Matobo soon afterwards.Nicole Kidman as Silvia Broome
Sean Penn as Tobin Keller
Catherine Keener as Dot Woods
Jesper Christensen as Nils Lud
Yvan Attal as Philippe
Earl Cameron as Edmond Zuwanie
George Harris as Kuman-Kuman
Michael Wright as Marcus
Tsai Chin as Luan
Clyde Kusatsu as Police Chief Lee Wu
Eric Keenleyside as Rory Robb
Hugo Speer as Simon Broome
Maz Jobrani as Mo
Yusuf Gatewood as Doug
Robert Clohessy as King
Terry Serpico as Lewis
David Zayas as Charlie Russell
Sydney Pollack as Jay Pettigrew
Adrian Martinez as Roland
The Interpreter was shot almost entirely in New York City. The opening sequence was shot in Mozambique with a support crew made up largely of South African nationals.
Parts of The Interpreter were filmed inside the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council chambers. The producers approached the U.N. about filming there before, but their request was turned down. The production would have relocated to Toronto with a constructed set; however, this would have substantially increased costs, and so Sydney Pollack approached then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan directly, and personally negotiated permission to film inside the United Nations. Annan commented on The Interpreter that "the intention was really to do something dignified, something that is honest and reflects the work that this Organization does. And it is with that spirit that the producers and the directors approached their work, and I hope you will all agree they have done that."
Ambassadors at the U.N. had hoped to appear in the film, but actors were asked to play the roles of diplomats. Spain's U.N. Ambassador Inocencio Arias jokingly complained that his "opportunity to have a nomination for the Oscar next year went away because of some stupid regulation."
The country "Republic of Matobo" and its corresponding constructed language "Ku" were created for this film. The director of the Centre for African Language Learning in Covent Garden, London, England, Said el-Gheithy, was commissioned in January 2004 to create Ku. Ku is based on Bantu languages spoken in Eastern and Southern Africa, and is a cross between Swahili and Shona, with some unique elements.
The film's tagline, "the truth needs no translation," in Ku would be angota ho ne njumata."
There are strong parallels between President Robert Mugabe and the character Dr. Zuwanie in the film, as well as between Matobo and Zimbabwe – which banned the film after it had been shown in the country. The parallels include:Both Robert Mugabe and Zuwanie were once regarded as legitimate "freedom fighters".
In real life, President Mugabe had ruled Zimbabwe for 25 years when the film was released. The film's Zuwanie had been in power for 23 years.
Australia and New Zealand are pushing for President Mugabe to be indicted by the U.N. Security Council for trial before the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity; Zuwanie is indicted by the Security Council for trial before the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity.
Both President Mugabe and Zuwanie were teachers before being involved with politics.
President Mugabe tends to wave his fist; Zuwanie his gun.
Zuwanie is portrayed as collaborating with a Dutch mercenary to arrange an assassination attempt on him, since – as described in the film – "a nearly-assassinated president gains credibility and sticks around to enjoy it." In reality, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was caught on tape trying to arrange an assassination attempt on Mugabe. He was tried for treason but later exonerated based on the ambiguity of the word "eliminate" President Mugabe. Tsvangirai wanted to hire Ari Ben-Menashe, an ex-Israeli secret service agent, for the job, but the latter taped the conversation and made it public.
President Mugabe has a preoccupation with the British and frequently accused Tony Blair of trying to unseat him. Zuwanie thinks the French are doing the same.
Matobo's flag bears a strong resemblance to Zimbabwe's flag.
Zuwanie is the dictator of the fictional country of Matobo, an apparent reference to Zimbabwe's Matobo National Park.
The film has a scene where there is a demonstration against Zuwanie at the U.N.; one of the anti-Zuwanie demonstrators is holding a poster with the open-handed symbol of Zimbabwe's main opposition party: the Movement for Democratic Change.
Zimbabwe's government has itself spotted the parallels between Mugabe and Zuwanie.In September 2005, the Herald, a state owned newspaper in Harare, Zimbabwe, attacked the film, calling it an anti-Zimbabwean work supported by the CIA. The film has been approved for release and distribution inside the country by the country's official censorship board. Acting Minister of Information and Publicity Chen Chimutengwende said, "The CIA-backed film showed that Zimbabwe's enemies did not rest. They have resources and are determined to wage their war on the economic, social and cultural fronts. The names of the main character in the film are Shona," Mr Chimutengwende said, referring to Zimbabwe's main ethnic group to which President Mugabe belongs. "The film talks about an African president going to the United Nations and our president is going to the UN next week so the connection is so obvious," he said. "But we will defeat them and we will defeat neo-colonialism. We have defeated a powerful enemy before which was colonialism," he said. Tafataona Mahoso, chairman of the Zimbabwe government Media and Information Commission, said it was "cheap American and Rhodesian propaganda . . . typical of the tactics used during the Cold War."
Zimdaily.com reported on 23 September 2005 that the President's Office had issued an interdict banning screening of The Interpreter. The interdict, seen by Zimdaily, stated that the film is "mischievous" and a "subtle denigration of our head of State by the Bush administration and the CIA." It states that screening the film risks contravening Section 13(1)(A) as read with subsection (6) of the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act, and that it is in contravention of the Public Order and Security Act, which outlaws communicating statements deemed to undermine the head of State.
Zimbabwe's government also linked the film to efforts by Australia and New Zealand to have Mugabe indicted by the U.N. Security Council for trial before the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity.
The Interpreter earned mixed reviews from critics, as it now holds a 56% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 192 reviews.
The picture was No. 1 In its opening weekend. According to Box Office Mojo, The Interpreter had a domestic gross of $72,708,161 and an international tally of $90,236,762, bringing the picture's worldwide gross to $162,944,923 versus an $80 million budget, so the film was considered a box office success.
In 2005, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awarded Catherine Keener as Best Supporting Actress, for her parts in several films including The Interpreter.