Sydney Pollack's The Interpretor is politically correct, mildly amusing entertainment with a slapdash of 70's paranoia thrown in for good measure... and after all... that's what we've come to expect from Mr. Pollack. There is a certain amount of gritty tension within the framework of this thriller, though- specifically a French Connection-like tailing scene where all three groups being followed by the powers-that-be end up on the same bus... and it's almost worth the price of admission alone to see the looks on all three agents' faces as they realize, at the exact same moment, that their paths have crossed and some really heavy stuff is about to go down. That said, Sean Penn is firing on all cylinders and Catherine Keener is good for a laugh or too with her world weary sarcasm on full display.
Another film dealing with racial tension, albeit on a much less panaromic view than third world genocide like Pollack's attempt, is Paul Haggis' Crash. God I really, really wanted to love this film. I usually go nuts over this type of gliding, multi-linear soap opera that explicitely overlaps human drama over the course of one fateful day. Altman's Short Cuts and Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, specifically, come to mind as two films that stand out last decade as controversial and rousing masterpieces. And there's more in common than that. Haggis, Altman and Anderson all three implode their mounting human suffering by juxtaposing a denouement that has nature step in and blindly spreading her will across the landscape (earthquakes, frogs, and snow in Los Angeles). It's convinving with Altman, bewildering and thrilling with Anderson, but only cute with Haggis. The performances are fine.... but the film has such an enormous weight of "importance" hovering over it, that Haggis' overwriting stumps the personal and emotional ties I began to develop with the characters. Two scenes stand out- Daniel (Michael Pena) lowering himself to his daughter's level and talking to her as she hides underneath the bed and Matt Dillon saving Thandie Newton from a burning car after an... let's call it uncomfortable... encounter the night before. If Crash had sustained the honest elicitations of those two scenes, then we could very nearly have another great controversial and rousing masterpiece to stand alongside the other two. Instead, we end up with a sporadic message movie that is no better than a film that barely even tries. Haggis and company try too hard.
And the cream of this week's crop came from the small screen in Niel Mueller's The Assassination of Richard Nixon. I thought it'd be pretty damn hard for Sean Penn to top his performance in Eastwood's Mystic River, but he does it here, engulfing us with a character that begins uncomfortably and grows into an altogether anamolistic embodiment. It's a frightening performance that tells the true story of Sam Bicke (Travis Bickle, anyone?), a furniture salesman who cracks under the pressure of everyday life and hatches a grand scheme with potentially disastrous consequences. What is most interesting about the film is the way that Bicke slowly transfers all his personal rage and frustration onto an amorphous body such as the American government.. and Richard Nixon in particular. Even better, the film draws an interesting hypothesis on Bicke- that his insanity grew largely out of the disappointment of not just himself, but the entire nation. Would Bicke have even targeted Richard Nixon if he hadn't heard his boss tell him one night that Nixon is a great salesman because Nixon sold the American public (twice) on a lie to end the war in Vietnam? What if Bicke had looked over at the television screen and seen a game show host instead? Would he of transferred the same dissolution on that person? It's an interesting take on the slow-to-burn madman theory and Penn sells it. And the final image is downright brilliant.