NOTE: This Spoiler was sent in by Boxset who says... "The Interpreter is the true heir to that glut of political thrillers that were so popular in the 1970s (The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, etc.). Perhaps a bit overlong, but nevertheless very watchable and Penn is excellent."
The film opens in the desolate desert landscape of Matobo, a fictional country in Africa. The country has obviously suffered. Three men are driving to an arranged meeting. It later becomes clear that the men are Simon Broome, a political activist, opposition leader Xola, and a French photographer, Philippe.
Broome has notebooks, which he places on the back seat of the car. Upon arrival at the designated spot, an abandoned and dilapidated football stadium, Broome and Xola go inside. Three young boys are playing football. One asks the two men if they want to see the bodies. They reply that they do and are shown to an inner room where many bodies are piled up. One of the boys shouts out that someone is coming, and the men go back out into the arena, only to be shot and killed by one of the boys. Upon hearing the shots, Philippe, who has stayed in the jeep, hides in the undergrowth. A limousine arrives and a man (who we later learn to be government henchman Jean Gamba) arrives. Philippe takes photographs of him.
We then move to New York and the United Nations building, where Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) works as an interpreter. A dignitary is giving a speech to the General Assembly. In the lobby, it is discovered that a metal detector gate is faulty. As a precaution, further people are stopped from entering the building, tours are halted, and a recess is called. Security staff have to clear the building. Silvia has a bag of personal items in her control room, and, assuming that the evacuation will be brief, decides to leave it there, to save her carrying it downstairs and then all the way back up again. In the event it is several hours before she can return. Going back to the control room that night to retrieve her bag, she overhears a conversation between two people on her headset which frightens her. Having foolishly turned on the light in the room long enough for anyone in the main assembly area to see her, she flees the building. Returning to her apartment, she tries to e-mail a friend, but gets no response. Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) is drinking in a bar. He unplugs the bar's jukebox in order to erase the pre-programmed memory and programs in a song ("If I Had A Boat") that's obviously personal to him. He calls his wife and gets the answering machine, saying "the Kellers are out having fun". He redials the number and listens to the same message again.
Silvia goes to work the next day on her moped and is followed by Gamba, who attempts to run her off the road.
In the UN, she learns that President Zuwanie of Matobo is coming to the UN to address the GA. Zuwanie was a hero in Matobo, until power corrupted him, leading to accusations of genocide. Now an old man, many want him to stand trial in the Court of International Criminal Justice in The Hague. It is assumed that he will attempt to avoid this by speaking in the UN of his wish to embrace democracy. On hearing of this visit, Silvia now understands the cryptic conversation she heard, and goes to the authorities, explaining that she believes an attempt will be made to assassinate Zuwanie in the UN building.
Tobin and his colleague Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) are Secret Service Dignitary Protection agents. They are called to the UN and Tobin speaks with Silvia. He doesn't believe her story. He finds it very coincidental that she just happened to be in the right place at the right time in order to hear a conversation in an obscure language. He orders a background check on her and asks that she submit to a polygraph test.
Tobin's boss (Sydney Pollack) asks whether he should be back in work, suggesting some (undisclosed) recent incident in Tobin's life. Zuwanie's security advisor, Lud, arrives and is briefed. He also tells Tobin that Silvia's parents and sister were killed by landmines planted by Zuwanie's people, and that Silvia was a former militant activist.
In a Secret Service meeting, we learn that two men oppose Zuwanie and could conceivably take power if he was removed, Xola and Kuman-Kuman, the latter an exiled Matobo government minister, now living in Brooklyn.
Silvia's polygraph tests are inconclusive, but Tobin is irate when Lud takes the opportunity to question her alone without permission. Silvia explains a tribal custom of revenge to Tobin, wherein a killer is lowered into a lake, and the family of the victim can choose to let him drown and live with their actions, or choose to save the man, and as such gain some form of acceptance.
A tribal mask is stolen from Silvia's apartment and a man appears on her fire escape wearing it, in order to frighten her. The man transpires to be Jamal, a cleaner working in the UN building, who has stolen and copied the key to Silvia's apartment for Gamba. Gamba is angry that Jamal acted recklessly, especially as strands of his hair were left on the mask, enabling the authorities to trace him. Gamba kills Jamal. Later, when the authorities arrive at Jamal's apartment, the normally well-dressed Gamba answers the door in overalls, explaining in poor English that Jamal is away with a woman. In the wake of Jamal's appearance on her fire escape, Tobin's attitude towards Silvia changes and he tells her that his wife died two weeks earlier in a car driven by her lover whom she was about to leave in order to return to him. Tobin comments, in relation to her earlier story of the tribal ritual, is that he'd "let him drown".
Silvia's apartment is under surveillance, but she gets away and meets with Phillippe, who tells her that Xola was tricked into a meeting by the rival opposition leader Kuman-Kuman and was killed. He doesn't want to tell her that her brother is dead, so doesn't mention that Simon was there too.
Silvia knows Kuman-Kuman's daily routine, so ensures to get on the same bus as him, accusing him of killing Xola, which he denies. Gamba gets on the bus. As this is happening, Tobin and Woods have realised that the man who answered Jamal's door isn't his room-mate. They return to Jamal's apartment and find bomb making equipment and a booby-trap fixed to the light switch.
Back on the bus, Silvia asks Kuman-Kuman to find out information about her brother. Two agents have also got on the bus. Tobin figures that Gamba is going to bomb the bus in order to kill Kuman-Kuman and Silvia. Gamba gets off the bus. Silvia gets off in time but everyone else on the bus, including Kuman-Kuman, is killed.
Tobin discovers Silvia was a militant when she was a political activist. Silvia tells Tobin that she quit being a militant after she was forced to kill a boy in order to save herself. Philippe kills himself, leaving a note telling Silvia of Simon's death. Tobin gives her the note, along with her brother's notebooks, which Philippe had taken possession of after Simon's death. Gamba breaks into Silvia's apartment, but Tobin, watching from across the street, rushes over and kills him. Silvia flees the apartment and disappears.
Zuwanie arrives at the UN. In the interim, Tobin's colleagues manage to link Gamba to a Matoban delegate Marcus, who has AIDS, and hence fits the profile of an assassin with "nothing to lose". Marcus is about to shoot Zuwanie from a control booth, when Lud arrives in the room. Lud is obviously in on the plan and says his family back home will be rewarded. Tobin raises the alarm and Zuwanie is ushered off the podium. To his surprise, Marcus' custom-made gun has no live ammunition. Lud shoots Marcus. Tobin arrives in the room and accuses Lud of staging an elaborate assassination attempt in order to gain sympathy for Zuwanie.
Meanwhile, Silvia has hidden in a safe room in the UN, the room to which Zuwanie is ushered for his own protection. She threatens to shoot him with his own gun, but Tobin persuades her to let him in and he manages to convince her to change her mind and let him go on trial instead.
At the film's conclusion, we learn that Zuwanie will stand trial for crimes against humanity. Tobin persuades the authorities that Silvia is not a risk to society, but she decides to return to Africa, suggesting to him that he may like to visit some day.
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