Dennis Rodman's North Korea diplomacy trainwreck: His "Big Bang in Pyongyang" goes out with a whimper

Between the ballplayer's grandiosity and meltdowns, few fascinating glimpses of life under Kim Jong-un emerge

Published June 28, 2015 10:00PM (EDT)

Kim Jong-un watches a basketball game with Dennis Rodman at Pyongyang Indoor Stadium in this undated photo released by Korean Central News Agency, Jan. 9, 2014.       (Reuters/KCNA)
Kim Jong-un watches a basketball game with Dennis Rodman at Pyongyang Indoor Stadium in this undated photo released by Korean Central News Agency, Jan. 9, 2014. (Reuters/KCNA)

The problem with “Dennis Rodman: Big Bang in Pyongyang,” primarily, is that the filmmakers decided to make a film about Dennis Rodman going to North Korea. The 93-minute documentary promises the unmistakable stench of a shit-show just in the title alone. So it’s not that surprising to discover that “Dennis Rodman: Big Bang in Pyongyang” is awful — both in the “shock and awe” sort of awful, as well as in the “absolutely terrible and affronting to humanity” kind of way. There’s a reason that after its debut at the Slamdance film festival in January, the film has quietly slinked away into obscurity, making its television debut tonight on Showtime to little or no fanfare. But faced with the available footage, it’s almost alarming that anyone looked it over and decided to make it a feature film; its relevant pieces are YouTube-size, and the rest is long stretches of avoiding coming to any larger conclusions about what it is witnessing. Instead it opts for 90 minutes of slightly detached cynical enthusiasm, as events unfold on-screen that are varying shades of horrific. At the end of what is, essentially, a 90-minute conflagration, the documentary has the audacity to cheekily ask if maybe what we’ve seen has done some good—or, to extend the metaphor, that perhaps, the conflagration might have toasted some marshmallows along the way.

The documentary follows Dennis Rodman on his third trip to North Korea — a trip financed by Paddy Power, an Irish bookmaker, notorious for big-budget, attention-getting, and otherwise largely pointless media stunts. (For example: In the first few weeks after President Obama was elected, Paddy Power had an open bet, with 12-1 odds, that he’d be assassinated during his first term.) Rodman was invited by that country’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, to play an exhibition game against a North Korean team on the dictator’s birthday.

There is some inherent shock value to the subject, of course. Rodman, his fellow basketball players — a clutch of tangential Harlem Globetrotters and/or players from teams who saw their peak decades ago — and the team’s publicity handlers, including an odd hanger-on who turns out to be a geneticist, are all convinced that there is some value to this endeavor. Basketball diplomacy is what they call it; an attempt to open a door, a channel of communication, between the two nations. North Korea is rarely seen on-screen; Rodman is an outsize personality. It has a certain heady plausibility to it.

But as anyone who has seen him in an interview could tell you, Rodman is no diplomat. He is an attention-seeking man — pathologically so, it seems; the only time he seems comfortable during the whole trip is when he’s navigating a crowd of awestruck Koreans, towering over them like a benevolent giant. Yes, he bows at the appropriate times, tries the food, smiles for the camera. But he is also unstable, either due to alcoholism, mental illness, narcissism or some heady combination of the above, and it leads to problem after problem. He yells, on live television, to the CNN anchor interviewing his team. He’s too drunk after breakfast to scrimmage properly with his teammates. He starts yelling at his dinner companions for several minutes, and no one can think of what to say in response. He starts crying during an on-camera interview, explaining that he didn’t know North Korea had human rights violations, and also that he’s received death threats, and to just kill him now.

I don’t mean to sound punitive. Rodman is clearly disturbed, either by illness or addiction. But he’s also a mess. “Big Bang in Pyongyang” fails to either humanize or criticize his actions, settling for the easy middle road of enabling. In this trip, his foibles are given plenty of range to run amok, with the combined forces of a curious camera crew, an international press corps that can’t look away, and the hospitality of a country populated by the enslaved. The North Korean handlers clearly see this as an opportunity to push propaganda onto the waiting cameras; Rodman appears to buy it, hook, line and sinker. Before the exhibition match, he channels Marilyn Monroe long enough to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. Marshal” to the supreme leader.

The film tries to make Rodman its dark-horse subject, attempting to sound out what is happening inside Rodman’s head. In this way, it almost entirely fails; Rodman is mumbling and defensive in front of the camera, when he’s not incoherent with rage or liquor. He doesn’t even shine on the court. The basketball is pitiful — embarrassingly, the North Korean team roundly beats them. Afterward, former New York Knick (and unofficial leader) Charles Smith finds a quiet space in the locker room and starts weeping. The pressure has been unimaginable, he reports; Rodman has been difficult to work with, as usual; and “hoops diplomacy” and the free trip does not seem to be worth the publicity nightmare. (“Big Bang in Pyongyang” can’t even use footage from Rodman’s previous years as a star, because the NBA refused to have anything to do with this documentary.)

The part of the film that is worth watching are the rarely seen glimpses of life in North Korea — huge monuments looming over deserted roads; regimental rows of “sports fans,” all wearing identical clothing; eerily luxurious resorts, built to serve an impoverished population. Kim, and his country, live in a world where logic is totally inverted; it is perhaps no surprise that Rodman seems to get on in North Korea so well.

After Rodman has somewhat successfully pulled off the exhibition game — and kibitzed, haltingly, with Kim in a private box overlooking the game — the dictator invites Rodman to a new luxury ski resort, three hours away from the capital. Only Rodman is invited to stay for the whole weekend. Rodman refers to Kim as his “best friend,” and is eager, in this weekend, to really open the channel of communication between him and the dictator. The camera crew leaves with this promise in mind, to let the two men frolic together on the slopes.

They discover afterward that Rodman went on a drunken bender — and was so out of control Kim Jong-un politely canceled seeing him. Some kind of communication was achieved, but it’s hard to say what.

By Sonia Saraiya

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Big Bang In Pyongyang Dennis Rodman Kim Jong-un North Korea Showtime Tv