The movie opens in a dusty African landscape: the Republic of Matobo, where rebel leader Ajene Xola (Curtiss Cook) is driving two men, Simon and Philippe, to the abandoned Centennial Stadium. They briefly discuss how President Edmond Zuwanie (Earl Cameron)'s regime has ruthlessly exterminated most of the population, and intimidated the survivors into silence. Upon their arrival at the stadium, they discover that the informants are schoolboys, who point Ajene and Simon in the direction of corpses left by Zuwanie's security apparatus, while Philippe stays in the car.
Shouting lures Ajene and Simon back to the field, where they are promptly executed by the boys, who are revealed to be willing accomplices of Zuwanie's secret police. Upon hearing the gunshots, Philippe clambers out of the car and hides, taking pictures of a car arriving carrying Matoban officials, and then escapes the vicinity.
Meanwhile, Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) is an interpreter for the United Nations in New York City. Born in the United States to a British mother and white African father, she spent most of her life in her father's homeland of Matobo (a stand-in for Zimbabwe), studied music in Johannesburg, linguistics at Sorbonne University, Paris, and various other European countries, and is a dual citizen of both Matobo and the United States (with the possibility of deriving British citizenship through her mother). Her diverse background leads to UN Security Chief Lee Wu (Clyde Kusatsu) wryly describing her as "being the UN".
The U.N. is considering indicting Zuwanie, 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 caused by a malfunctioning metal detector 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 (the Matoban lingua franca). 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, which assigns Dignitary Protection Division agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) to investigate, as well as protect Zuwanie when he arrives, as well as Zuwanie's personal head of security, Dutch mercenary Nils Lud (Jesper Christensen). 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.
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