Normally for In Praise Of, I pick a recent movie and single out some refreshing or innovative aspect of it, like the relationships in The Night Before or The Big Short doing a Michael Lewis adaptation that finally bucks convention. I still want that to be the general thrust of this column, but we must also realize that it’s mid-January, and mid-January movies tend to be innovative only if measured by silly wigs, or the quantity of witches Nic Cage has to hunt.
As long as you’re staying home, I recommend checking out Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang In Pyongyang, which is new on streaming from Showtime this month (or a five-buck rental on iTunes). Now, I know what you’re thinking: didn’t I already see a documentary about Dennis Rodman in North Korea? The answer is yes, you did. Maybe. Probably. I don’t know. Anyway, season one of VICE included a segment, “The Hermit Kingdom,” in which VICE used Dennis Rodman as a sort of Trojan horse to get back into North Korea just after Kim Jong-un had taken power in 2013. (They’d visited twice before.)
With Rodman onboard for the project, they used his name to play on the Kim family’s rumored love of Chicago Bulls basketball to organize a goodwill game between North Korea and members of the Harlem Globetrotters. The game ended up being attended by Kim Jong-un in the flesh, who then invited the entire team back to a private banquet, where an all-girl band of electric violinists played the theme from Rocky. Toasts were given, and Dennis Rodman ended up singing karaoke to the leader of a Stalinist nation. This last part goes a long way toward explaining why I will watch almost anything about North Korea.
It was one of the best segments VICE has ever done, and while Big Bang in Pyongyang doesn’t exactly top it (not to mention that no one bangs, so it’s sort of false advertising), it does make for an interesting, possibly necessary, companion piece. The VICE segment focuses mostly on the general eeriness of North Korea, which was basically why they set up the tour in the first place. (A fun game to play is to watch all the docs on North Korea you can find, and drink every time someone references The Truman Show.) Big Bang, by contrast, casts Dennis Rodman as a kind of shambling, tragic Don Quixote figure, embarking on a noble quest and failing spectacularly.
Shot a year later and directed by Colin Offland, Big Bang covers what happens after the VICE piece, when Dennis Rodman leads a second basketball delegation — made up of ex NBA players that include Doug Christie, Cliff Robinson, Charles Smith, Vin Baker, and Kenny Anderson, among others — back to Pyongyang to play an exhibition game for Kim Jong-un’s birthday. In the time between the VICE piece and this, Rodman had apparently gone on a family vacation with Kim, to a private island, jet skiing, horseback riding, smoking cigars (dropping acid with spider monkeys changed his whole perspective on sh*t), with the man to whom Rodman has begun affectionately referring as “the Marshall.”
It’s easy to see Rodman as a clown, or your run-of-the-mill dumbass, so happy that a powerful man is treating him with respect that he’s willing to overlook that man’s appalling human rights record (sort of like Steven Seagal does with Putin). That was my impression at the time, and there’s certainly evidence for that here. Like when Rodman speaks lovingly of his retreat with Kim Jong-un, where they were always served “the best of everything,” without acknowledging or seeming to understand the plight of your average North Korean, who probably doesn’t even have electricity for most of the day. But Big Bang in Pyongyang also adds some important nuance to the picture. It gives Rodman, at the very least, the benefit of good intentions.
In his last interview before the trip, Rodman, who wears giant sunglasses in almost every scene, and tends to ramble when he isn’t mumbling, breaks down, talking about how he’s making history, and “no one has ever done this before,” seemingly moved to tears by his own greatness. Again, it’s easy to make a clown of him. But he’s also not wrong. Few other celebrities would bother going to North Korea (Rodman mentions Jay-Z and Beyoncé specifically), and, you might argue, for good reason. But there’s at least a debate to be had over whether those celebrities who would opt out of this kind of tour would be doing it for the benefit of the world, or just to protect their own reputations. The conventional wisdom would be that to show up in North Korea would be to give Kim Jong-un a propaganda victory. In allowing it, the North Korean regime surely sees it that way. At the same time, most credit the fall of the Soviet Union at least partly to glasnost, where just a crack in the system of government control and censorship eventually became a tidal wave of honestly expressed opinions that took down the whole regime. Could the image of Kim Jong-un, the leader of a hyper-conformist and isolationist state shaking hands with a cross-dressing, tatted-up American do the same thing in North Korea? Seems to me that it’s at least worth finding out.
The beauty of Big Bang in Pyongyang as a piece of cinema is that after it has afforded Dennis Rodman the benefit of good intentions, or at least noted the possibility of positive outcomes, Rodman’s personal issues turn it into a Greek tragedy. It’s hard to outdo North Korea in the tragicomedy department, but Rodman takes a valiant stab. As soon as he gets a whole crew of ex-NBA players involved in his scheme, Rodman falls off the wagon and basically ends up becoming everything his worst critics said he was all along.
It starts when he shows up to the first basketball event drunk. Luckily he has Charles Smith with him, a natural leader who becomes the de facto chairman and spokesperson for the basketball delegation. You identify with Smith and the other players — holy sh*t, what have they gotten themselves into? Even more impressively, Smith manages to be gracious and diplomatic with Rodman, as the latter unravels. For his part, Dennis gradually devolves into the Eric Roberts to Smith’s Mickey Rourke in Pope of Greenwich Village, the Jeremy Renner to Smith’s Ben Affleck in The Town — in short, the Wild Card Who F*cks Everything Up. It’s simultaneously fascinating and painful to watch, seeing this character archetype play out in real life, especially when you consider the stakes. Dennis Rodman isn’t just risking his reputation here, there’s a legitimate possibility of him getting thrown in a f*cking gulag.
Was Dennis Rodman always this? Is he a metaphor for U.S./North Korean relations made flesh? Is it just his personal demons coming home to roost (assuming demons roost)? Or did he simply crack under the media pressure, fulfilling our negative assumptions because of us? There’s a lot to chew on there, but either way, the entire second half of the movie is like a slow-motion car crash. You watch through your fingers, cringing as Dennis splutters drunkenly about what crimes Kenneth Bae may have committed to make a nice guy like Kim Jong-un throw him in prison, culminating in the most surreal moment of all, Dennis Rodman singing “Happy Birthday” to Kim Jong-un in front of 10,000 spectators, like some hellish reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe. Even if the rest of the movie was utter sh*t (and it isn’t), it would be worth it for just that one incredible image.
Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang In Pyongyang probably isn’t the most thorough documentary about North Korea, but like the country itself, it’s funny, sad, surreal, terrifying, and ultimately makes you wonder how things could be different, if only history had a rewind button.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.