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Non-Review Review: Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015.

Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang tells a story that would seem almost too absurd or too far-fetched if it were a scripted drama. The documentary charts the former NBA star as he attempts to organise a friendly basketball game between North Korea and the United States. The idea came from Kim Jong-Un, who had struck up an unlikely friendship with Rodman during an earlier trip to the isolated dictatorship. Over December 2013 and January 2014, Rodman helped to organise the most unlikely basketball friendly in history.

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It is a crazy story, even before you dig into the finer details of it. However, the documentary team that filmed this rather surreal diplomatic mission found themselves in the middle of a drama that would make Seth Rogan and James Franco squirm uncomfortably. Rodman is a natural showman, and there are moments in Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang that are incredibly awkward to watch – as the stress starts to eat away at Rodman, and everybody around him continues to smile politely and obligingly.

One member of an early expedition to Pyongyang describes it as “a real-life Truman Show”, a hyper-real environment where everybody is aware that they are being watched at every moment. North Korea is an infamously well-managed dictatorship; Rodman’s visit is so well stage-managed that the documentary crew was never going to peel back the layers on a “real” North Korea. Instead, the effect is strangely disconcerting; a world where everybody seems polite and obliging all the time, with only the faintest sinister air underpinning it all.

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Rodman always was a flamboyant character, and it is interesting to see that juxtaposed against the backdrop of such a carefully maintained façade. Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang is quite candid about its central character, even if it is never unfair. “Working with Dennis is always difficult,” fellow NBA star Charles Smith concedes at one point. “But it’s often worth it.” The documentary presents a fascinating glimpse at a character who seems to straddle the line between brilliance and naivety in his efforts to organise this game.

There is a striking moment quite early in the documentary where Rodman tries to explain his motivations, conceding North Korea’s long (and growing) list of human rights violations. It is an interview clip that is stunning to watch, as Rodman navigates the gamut of human emotions; he is boisterous and defensive one minute, sorrowful and contemplative the next. There are tears running down his face as he tries to articulate his thought process. All of this happens in about two minutes. Based on the rest of the documentary, this seems typical of the athlete.

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There are points where Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang plays almost like harrowing cringe-comedy in the most unlikely setting. Rodman struggles with his own demons, and there are points where it seems like the athlete is on the verge of (or in the process of) imploding. However, the people around him all continue about their business, far too polite to interrupt or intervene. These sequences seem excessive if written into a scripted comedy, it is hard to process them as events that really happened.

There are images in Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang that feel like they might have been lifted from an early draft of The Interview. Rodman plays one half of the game, before retreating to the balcony to spend time with “the Marshall”, the two spending the rest of the game laughing and joking like old friends. Handed the mike at the start of the game, Rodman serenades Kim Jong-Un with an impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mister Marshall” as a stadium full of North Koreans clap along.

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Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang is generally quite even-handed in tackling its subject. The documentary is quite candid about the legitimate criticisms of Rodman’s adventure, but it also explores the idea that Rodman might be on to something here. (Early in the documentary, narrator Matt Cooper points out that ping-pong turned into an unlikely bridge between the United States and China.) Every time it seems like the documentary is laying into Rodman a bit too tough, it pauses to take stock and consider his position.

It is an absolutely remarkable piece of work, an unlikely glimpse at the surreal story behind a bizarre event. There really is no frame of reference for the story of the eccentric professional basketball player who decided to host a friendly basketball game for a dictator friend on that friend’s birthday. Matt Cooper’s narration is wonderful deadpan, talking about events in an almost colloquial fashion. After all, there is really no way to describe this adventure in a way that seems completely objective and detached.

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Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang is a fantastic documentary about something utterly unprecedented. It is very much worth a look.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 4

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