'Dennis Rodman's Big Bang in Pyongyang': Slamdance Review
Colin Offland’s first feature documentary is a surreal profile of NBA veteran Dennis Rodman’s friendship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un
In one of the more improbable instances of citizen diplomacy to transpire in the recent annals of international relations, Dennis Rodman’s multiple visits to North Korea over the past couple of years have contributed to the retired NBA star developing a close personal relationship with the nation’s dictator Kim Jong-un, a major basketball fan himself.
Following a string of travel and culinary segments for European broadcasters, Colin Offland’s feature directing debut matches the antic absurdity of Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s The Interview with this real-life account of Rodman’s burgeoning friendship with Kim and the staging of “the most controversial sporting event the world has never seen.” Incredible, incendiary and consistently irreverent, Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang stands to rack up major points in every conceivable format across the majority of the world’s many basketball-obsessed territories and perhaps even one day in North Korea.
Rodman’s unlikely journey to becoming the best bud of North Korea’s third-generation leader began with an invitation from Vice Media to participate in a documentary about a January 2013 event in Pyongyang featuring the Harlem Globetrotters. Apparently Kim wasn’t entirely satisfied with the performance and asked Rodman when he was visiting on a follow-up trip if he could arrange a real basketball game with professional players to compete with the country’s national team. Rodman jumped at the chance, offering to schedule the game on Kim’s January 8, 2014 birthday.
Pulling off such an audacious attempt at basketball diplomacy was going to be tricky even for Rodman, a flamboyant and often confrontational former NBA player known for his outlandish displays of self-promotion. So fast forward to later in 2013, when a minor stroke of genius permits Rodman to bring aboard Irish bookmaker Paddy Power as a promotional sponsor to finance his return to North Korea in December to begin preparing the groundwork for the epic game. Rodman emphasizes in the press that he’s going on a private trip that he hopes might contribute to improving US relations with the isolated Asian nation. “I’m not trying to be a politician. I’m not trying to be a world leader,” Rodman declaims. “It’s all about sports.”
Inevitably, however, Rodman’s support for Kim sparks controversy as his gameplan becomes increasingly entangled with high-profile international political controversies, including the North’s human rights record and its aggressive military policies. Whether naturally or willfully naive, he underplays these and other issues to his peril, however, as he presses on to select a roster of retired NBA players to face off against the North Koreans, returning with his team in January 2014 for the epic competition.
Offland, who initially received permission from Paddy Power to film Rodman’s late-2013 trip, obtains remarkably intimate access to the star, the NBA players and a variety of North Korean officials and handlers. More problematic, however, is recovering alcoholic Rodman’s unpredictable behavior, as he succumbs to the incredible stress of planning the event and starts drinking again, making an already unpredictable situation even more complicated. Starting with the group’s arrival in Pyongyang, he begins boozing almost nonstop, disrupting an official welcome banquet, interfering with the team’s practice sessions and nearly sabotaging a confrontational CNN interview in a spectacular and often uproarious meltdown. Whether or not alcohol contributed to his memorably inspired “Happy Birthday” serenade for Kim prior to the tip-off for the competition, it’s clear that things won’t be going at all as expected.
Although the quality of Offland’s footage is often variable, since it’s shot in a variety of different production formats and also includes archival segments and North Korean broadcast TV clips, the inconsistencies don’t much detract from the frequently arresting immediacy of the material. Matt Cooper delivers the film’s irony-inflected voiceover (humorously scripted by Matthew Baker) with an infectious Irish lilt that jauntily propels the narrative through its many unlikely twists and turns.
Aside from archival photos from earlier trips, Rodman and “the Marshall,” as he refers to Kim, are only seen together on the sidelines of the big game, laughing and conversing with the assistance of a translator, just like old friends. Otherwise, Kim repeatedly fails to make an appearance, although he remains a frequent source of conflict and controversy throughout the film.
Production company: Chief Productions
Director: Colin Offland
Screenwriter: Matthew Baker
Producer: Colin Offland
Director of photography: Jason Bulley
Editor: Tom O’ Flaherty
Music: Adam Ryan-Carter
No rating, 92 minutes