Tell me about the interpreter…is she married, does she have a child? Does she belong to any clubs? Is she registered to vote, Democrat, Republican? What religion is she? Who is she?” (Secret Service Agent Tobin Keller/Sean Penn in the late Sidney Pollack’s `The Interpreter`, 2006).
On a recent blind trawl of DVDs from the local Berlin superstore, three films rose quickly to the top of the viewing list: Tony Scott’s busy `Spygame` (2001), Sidney Pollack´s engaging `The Interpreter` (2006) and Steven Soderbergh`s cluttered `The Good German` (2006).
All films share a common backdrop: the often-central role that America has played in post- 1945 international affairs. `Spygame`, for example, tracks the working relationship between CIA operative Nathan Muir/Robert Redford and his protégé Tom Bishop/Brad Pitt from 1970s Vietnam through 1970s Cold War Berlin to 1990s Beirut; `The Interpreter`, while firmly locked in present-day New York, confronts Secret Service Agent Tobin Keller/Sean Penn with recent African genocidal histories; and the twisted threesome between journalist Jake Geismer/George Clooney, Lena/Cate Blanchett and Corporal Tully/Toby Maguire in `The Good German`, is implicated in the political intricacies of the Potsdam Conference of 1945.
Each film has its rightful place, therefore, in that area of contemporary Hollywood output that passes for adult entertainment of the more noble kind, each helmed by noteworthy directors and spearheaded by a range of able performances - Pollack’s work with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn is final testimony of the high reputation he had as the ´A` list actor’s director.
What’s particularly intriguing, furthermore, is how on reflection there exists a specific narrative DNA, which all three films also share.
Despite radically different locations, story elements, cast and directorial style, each film centres upon the eternal mystery - the nature of the central female character. The trusted relationship between Nathan Muir/Robert Redford and Tom Bishop/Brad Pitt in `Spygame` becomes unhinged when the younger man falls for a British relief worker (Catherine McCormack) who, as her uncertain character is unpeeled by a frustrated Muir, can only succeed in her charitable work in Beirut by working the two sides of the political divide.
Similarly Blanchett`s Lena in `The Good German` is revealed as Frau Brandt, the wife of a valued Nazi who she is attempting to smuggle to the West. The final reel reveals her as a Jewess and who, furthermore, had earlier turned traitor to 10 other Jews to secure her own survival.
Finally, the troubled history of Kidman’s U. N interpreter, Silvia Broome, involves the murder of her parents and brother and her own revenge killing of a young soldier boy.
The revealing character backstorys, however, only serve to drag the forward plot momentum that the films assume to be building. The trade-off is particularly marked in Scott’s bumpy `Spygame` whose episodic chunks of flashbacks undermine the ticking-clock predicaments of the present.
“Who is she?”, then, is the core mystery that drives the narratives of these three films. While the surface adventures take us forward through intricate office politics, vicious jungle warfare to urban bomb blasts, the more meaningful narratives peel into the backstory of the central female characters whose worlds are compromised by events greater than themselves and from which they try valiantly to escape.
However, on a more critical note, the urgent attempts by their male pursuers and questioners - as played by Penn, Redford, and Clooney - to expose, define, and finally secure their `true` identities confirms once again that certain questionable tendencies of old Hollywood still remain firmly in place, and even on DVD.