Friday, September 08, 2017

The Hitman's Bodyguard: The ICC in American Popular Culture

Favorable treatment of The International Criminal Court (ICC) has begun to appear in American popular culture. In the last three months, this has happened in two thriller novels and a movie. This blog discusses this phenomenon through these books and the film. In particular, we consider whether it may be important in making the American public aware of the ICC through what it reads and watches.

The movie is The Hitman’s Bodyguard. In it, Michael Bryce (played by Ryan Reynolds) is hired as a bodyguard to transport a notorious hitman, Darius Kincaid (Samuel L Jackson) to The Hague. Kincaid is to testify in the trial of Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) a dictator from Belarus accused of crimes against humanity. It opened on August 18, 2017. On its opening weekend, admittedly a slow one at the box office, it was the first place earner with a gross of $21,384,504.

(The Hitman's Bodyguard Official Poster, sourced from IMDB. 

 The movie is firmly within the genre of action comedy, under the direction of Australian Patrick Hughes, who also directed The Expendables 3.  It has a cast of stars with Ryan Reynolds, Gary Oldman, Samuel L Jackson and Salma Hayek The movie has been received in a form typical to the genre, reviews ranging from below average to just slightly above. The New York Times review stated, “It occupies its genre niche – the exuberantly violent Euro-action movie-star-paycheck action comedy – without excessive cynicism or annoying pretension.”

Irrespective of the film’s reception by the industry, it is a movie about getting a witness to an international trial. Kincaid’s motivations compromises the force of this theme.  The character’s impetus is not from a strong sense of justice and a desire to end impunity; he is only willing to testify to the Court to exonerate his wife, Sonia Kincaid, played by Salma Hayek. The film does however deal with the very serious issue of witness protection, something that is well - known to and greatly concerns those familiar with the ICC.

Reviews and various synopses of the movie reveal that reviewers and publicists know little about the ICC. They are confused about the Court in The Hague where Kincaid is going to testify. In researching this film some media outlets state that Kincaid is going to testify at the ICC, other say that Kincaid and Bryce are trying to get to the International Court of Justice, and some just use the catchall of “The Hague”. Production Notes from Lionsgate, the movie’s distributor, do not clarify what Court the film is dealing with; simply stating that it is a “raucous and hilarious adventure from England to the Hague.” It is telling that even at a press release level, the jurisdiction and functions of those two international courts is confused. The film itself makes specifically clear that it is about a trial at the ICC. Moreover, it is about the trial of an individual, whereas the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice is limited to disputes between states.

The confusion about the Court is just one of a few misconceptions about the structures and functions of international law and enforcement expressed within the film. For example, its use of Interpol agents was misleading. However, the significance of the movie remains in its positive portrayal of the ICC. Even having regard to the irony of two characters acting with impunity to get to a Court whose sole mandate is to end international impunity, the movie does familiarize the American audience with the existence of the Court.

This familiarization may be even better furthered by the two novels: Scott Turow’s Testimony and Terry Jastrow’s The Trial of Prisoner 043. Both are fictional novels that deal directly with the jurisdiction and judicial functions of the ICC. Testimony is about the ICC trial of the Bosnian genocide. It has been reviewed by the New York Times as a “fast-paced, well researched and, like the background it describes, distinctly tangled. This is a crime novel that requires a level of concentration and engagement with international politics some readers may balk at.” Scott Turow is a famous author of thriller novels. He is also a lawyer who still maintains a small private practice and most of his books have legal themes. His readership is in the millions. Testimony is not his best work, but still achieved a week on the New York best- seller list.  Turow spent time at the Court and his description of the Court is fairly good, giving readers a reasonable sense of how the Court works. Moreover, both in the text and in an Author’s Note there is warm and well-informed praise of the Court and sharp criticism of the US refusal to join it.

The Trial of Prisoner 043 presents a fictional ICC trial of George W. Bush for war crimes committed during the Iraq war. The Trial of Prisoner 043 been reviewed by one critic as “an interesting thought experiment, [that] is not successful as a legal novel.” Both novels are inaccurate in their description of testimony at the Court. The Trial of Prisoner 043 is especially so with testimony consisting only of long arguments pro and con on the invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush.

Whatever their merits or demerits in describing the Court, here are two novelists who are very concerned about the size of their readership and a director anxious to produce the end-of-summer blockbuster action movie. None of them apparently feared public hostility to their work because the ICC was a large feature of it. They probably knew nothing about polls showing high levels of popular approval of the Court, but their instincts about the public told them that there was no threat of such hostility. It is too early to draw final conclusions from this, but we are now on notice to see if it becomes a trend to support our advocacy.

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