Double movie Review: “Inside Man” and “The Interpreter”

This is a pair of movie reviews I originally wrote over four years ago. I haven’t rewatched either of the movies since (ironically enough), so I have little to add to what I wrote at the time, except a postscript to The Interpreter which I will address at the end.

Also, be warned, this entry contains a couple major spoilers for the first movie, and massive spoilers for the second.

Inside Man:

Synopsis: An enigmatic criminal named Dalton Russell and his three compatriots hold up a New York bank, taking several of its customers and employees hostage. Detective Keith Frazier, a possible indictment for robbery hanging over his head and troubled about his love life, gets assigned the task of negotiating with the robbers. Meanwhile, bank founder Arthur Case hires Madeleine White (a professional something or other) to insure the safety and secrecy of a specific safe deposit box in the bank’s vault. As these three forces collide, the bank robbers’ actions grow stranger and stranger, and the true nature of the crime grows less and less clear.

Personal Reaction: A truly excellent movie, brilliantly envisioned, brilliantly executed. The energy of the film is palpable, thanks to a near-perfect synergy of writing, acting, effects and directing.

Clive Owen steals the show as Russell, the one around whom the rest of the action revolves. Russell is a fascinatingly complex character in his own right, and Owen plays the character to perfection. Denzel Washington’s Frazier and Jodie Foster’s White provide excellent foils for Owen’s Russell. They’re also quite engaging characters in their own right, if not as interesting as the calculating, misdirecting Russell.

The movie’s plot is a hideously complex affair, stuffed with surprise twists and brimming with uncertainty. It (almost) all hangs together, and it’s masterfully presented—just don’t expect to understand the whole thing on the first run. This is definitely a movie for multiple viewings.According to the Internet Movie Database, many of the scenes in Inside Manwere largely unscripted, with the actors ad-libbing most of their lines. This is small surprise, as the dialogue and character interactions in the movie feel a lot more natural and realistic than in most films. Thankfully, they also manage not to be repetitive and stilted, the usual fate of fiction that tries to be too realistic.Another of the film’s many strengths is the way it weaves issues such as racism (especially post-9/11 racism), corruption, and war profiteering (among others) into the fabric of its narrative. Any one of these topics could easily justify its own 2-hour movie, but that is not Inside Man’spurpose. It is a tribute to this film’s brilliance, perhaps even genius, that it manages to address meaningfully so many complex, sensitive issues without letting any of them hijack the story. That takes skill.As you might expect from such a hideously complex movie, there are several lingering questions at the end. Some of these are minor plot holes (there’s always one or two) some are probably due to having missed some vital snippet of action or dialogue, but other questions—many pertaining to the nature of right and wrong—are left up to the viewer to decide.

This may seem easy, given the constant ambiguity of right and wrong here in real life, but I can assure you as a fiction writer and critic that it is not. The fiction writer is the final authority over their creation, and a story is a very definitive medium to work with. It’s very hard not to take a standpoint on an issue.

All that said, there is one question about the film that still bugs me. In the beginning dialogue of the film (repeated near the end) Dalton Russell says that aside from the money, he pulled the bank robbery “because he could.” However, there appears to be one other reason: to destroy a man who (apparently) has spent sixty years trying to atone for crimes.

Remember what I said about it being hard for a creator not to take a moral stand on an aspect of their movie: well this is one of those times. Inside Man heavily implies that Russell and Frazier are right to ruin Case, who seems genuinely sincere in his remorse for aiding the Nazis and his attempts to make amends. Intriguing.

Also, while it’s easy to thrill at Russell’s genius in formulating and executing his plan, it’s also hard to ignore that it would never have worked in real life. His strategy hinges on two very difficult tactics: insuring that nobody actually dies, while at the same time convincing the police and the hostages that he was all too willing to kill.

The second part of that strategy is vital, because if the feds didn’t believe he was a threat, they wouldn’t give him the time he needed to execute his plan. However, it also means that the police would be much more likely to shoot to kill. In that situation, one mistake can be fatal.

Russell and his people know the game and they don’t make a mistake. The police don’t know the game, and think they have a group of crazed killers on their hands, but they don’t make a mistake, either.

In real life, when Russell or his associate was forcing out one of the hostages dressed like the bank robbers, some nervous cop would’ve thought they were both bank robbers and opened fire, either despite or before Frazier’s warnings to the contrary. After that, it’s 50/50 whether Russell or the hostage would’ve been hit, with a 90% chance that whichever of them went down wouldn’t be getting up again. Ever.

And mind you, this is just the most obvious problem. There are literally an infinite number of outside variables that could’ve led to just one mistake, an infinite number of variable that no one, no matter how clever, could control for. And one mistake is all it takes.

Long story short: While Russell’s plan is awesome, it stretches the willing suspension of disbelief. It’s worth it.

Bottom Line: A truly thrilling movie. The language is definitely Parental Guidance material (frequent f-bombs), and some of the violence can be upsetting to the weak-stomached or impressionable. Also, don’t try to watch it if you can’t stand really complex plots. Other than that, enjoy.

Next, The Interpreter (warning: heavy spoilers in this one):

Synopsis: United Nations Interpreter Silvia Broome stumbles upon a plot to assassinate Edmund Zuwanie, an African dictator who will soon be visiting the UN. Secret service agent Tobin Keller investigates Silvia’s report, but quickly discovers that Silvia herself is the most suspicious aspect of the affair. As the intrigue around the assassination plot grows thicker and deadlier, Tobin grows increasingly unsure of whether he should be protecting Silvia or stopping her.

Personal Reaction: It’s a good solid plot, but at times poorly executed. I knew Zuwanie would turn out to be behind the whole thing all along, because of the Law of Conservation of Villains. When Zuwanie’s enemy, Kuman-Kuman mentioned on the TV that “even a failed assassination” against Zuwanie would exonerate him, I had the whole thing worked out. Therefore, my reaction to Tobin’s big “revelation” scene was something along the lines of “yeah, tell me something I don’t know.”

Okay, maybe I’m being a bit of a snob here. I know most viewers aren’t as genre savvy as I am and probably wouldn’t have figured this all out so quickly. However, I feel that most good books and movies do better at trying to fake out the aficionados. We still probably figure out the plot, but we don’t feel like it was staringly obvious.

Even if I were inclined to let that part go, you can’t escape the fact that the plot really does rest on an intimate associate of one of Zuwanie’s greatest enemies (recently assassinated) overhearing the plot in a sound booth in the General Assembly. Not only is the coincidence of Silvia being the one to hear the plot highly suspect, but the reasons the conspirators felt the need to discuss the assassination in the General Assembly (especially at that time of night) are never made clear.

None of which precludes The Interpreter from being an excellent movie. The acting is superb, and the plot (though occasionally spotty) is exciting and engaging. The Interpreter belongs to that rare class of fiction movies which can move the audience on a deeply emotional level.

One of the most successful points in the film is the bus bombing about halfway through the movie, in which the young security agent, Doug, is killed. It was unexpected (the film downplays the “inexperienced-kid-in-a-dangerous-job-who-gets-killed” cliché), and saddening. At the same time, it wasn’t so saddening as to throw me completely out of the story.

Fiction dealing with death puts itself in a very tricky position. If the deaths are too generic or clichéd, and/or if the characters involved are too minor, the audience feels nothing. However, if the characters who die are too big, you run the very serious risk of souring the whole story. Striking the balance between minor-enough-to-let-go and major-enough-to-get-the-audience’s sympathy is no small feat, and I applaud the moviemakers in achieving this balance with Doug.(Surprise is also a key factor. I was saddened at the deaths of Simon, Xola and Phillipe, but the impact was significantly lessened by the fact that I was expecting them to die anyway.)The Interpreter’s climax perfectly illustrates the movie’s storytelling strength. The audience knows intellectually that Silvia is not going to shoot Zuwanie; that would make the preceding two hours a waste of time. And yet the tension is palpable not just on the screen but in the audience: “she’s not going to do it … is she?” We know for sure on one level that she isn’t going to kill him, and on another we are still afraid that she might. (I actually feel like they drew out the scene just a little too far, but what the heck, I’ll forgive them.)The climax also presents an interesting inversion of my father’s axiom of American movies. The plot of just about any given American movie, he says, is to give sufficient reason to justify the hero killing off the villain in the end. While this indeed what the main plot of The Interpreter is all about, the character arcs are about giving the protagonist reason not to murder the villain.

One of the big reliefs about this movie is that Silvia doesn’t get away with it simply because a) she didn’t actually cause any real harm, and more importantly b) she’s the main character. I mean, yes, I believe she’s learned her lesson and would be better off staying at the UN, but the United States and United Nations criminal justice systems aren’t nearly so enlightened. If they had let Silvia stay, it wouldn’t be because it’s the right thing to do, it would be because the filmmakers were making other characters give the main character preferentially treatment just for being the main character. It happens all the time in fiction, and it’s utterly reprehensible.

The other big relief was the total absence of a romance developing between Silvia and Tobin. I’m a sap for romance, personally, but American literature and cinema has a nasty condition of shoving romantic subplots into their stories regardless of said subplot’s appropriateness. I found the relationship which developed between Silvia and Tobin all the more beautiful and complex and meaningful precisely because it was almost entirely nonromantic.

Bottom Line: The violence in this movie means it’s not for everyone (think a little more explicit than Lord of the Rings and a little less gratuitous). On the other hand, it’s refreshing for an American movie to speak out against the common assumption that the best way to solve the problem of violent people with more violence. Plus, it’s a genuinely exciting, entertaining, and engaging movie. Go for it.

Update: After writing the above review, I began rethinking the politics of The Interpreter—the villain is an African dictator, while the heroes are mostly white Westerners who eventually bring the dictator to trial and presumably save the oppressed Africans of Matobo from their home-grown dictator. Smells a bit … neocolonial to me.
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