“U.N. Me” damningly appraises the United Nations as an institution whose noble original mission has grown compromised by Kafkaesque bureaucracy, ineptitude, corruption and the influence of member nations protecting their own U.N. statute violations. Covering a lot of ground in colorful, pacey fashion, the docu is nonetheless somewhat compromised itself by co-director Ami Horowitz’s insistence on playing the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock role of onscreen provocateur. Resulting queasy mix of dead-serious issues and first-person snark opened on 10 U.S. screens June 1. Some expansion and decent home-format exposure are likely.
The opening snapshot crisply illustrates what’s wrong with the U.N. today, showing the keynote speaker to a 2009 Anti-Racism Conference to be Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose nation’s own myriad human-rights issues make him seem like the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse. But such whoppers are not uncommon in a body whose need to keep rogue members at the negotiating table often means diplomatically overlooking misdeeds, or even letting those responsible for them sit on commissions meant to monitor the crimes they practice.
After a brief review of the U.N.’s post-WWII origins and myriad successes since (responding to refugee crises, famines and epidemics, providing disaster relief, etc.), “U.N. Me” starts living up to the second half of its title by giving Horowitz numerous opportunities to clown around at the agency’s expense. First, there’s an extended sequence of the helmer wandering around the org’s New York City headquarters, rolling his eyes at a near-complete absence of activity or staff on a weekday.
Trouble with these and later hijinks is that there’s no way to tell how editing has manipulated the footage to make a quirky point. In particular, Horowitz’s verbal exchanges with defensive U.N. personnel often seem abruptly lopped-off, heightening the apparent cluelessness and hypocrisy of the U.N. staff, while playing up the director’s role as agent provocateur. That’s fine for “Borat.” But in this context, the approach feels cheap, if not disingenuous.
Nonetheless, many shocking, well-documented U.N.-related trespasses are related here — transgressions that resulted in little, if any, repercussions for those responsible. They include instances of peacekeeping troops being paid to do nothing in hot zones, or worse, committing rape, running pedophilia rings, even robbing banks. On a larger scale, there’s the ongoing failure of the org to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation; a massive “Oil-for-Food” campaign whose humanitarian mission wound up simply filling Saddam Hussein’s coffers; and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams’ five-alarm report on Darfur, which was dismissed as “lacking credibility” in order to placate human rights-abusing member nations — and resulting in genocidal catastrophe.
Disillusioned, bluntly spoken testimony from Williams is handled with fitting sobriety. But too often “U.N. Me” settles for a ka-boom-cha! approach, whether via jokey soundtrack choices, comicstrip illustrations or Horowitz attempting to lead a vanload of U.N. officials in singing “99 Bottles of Beer.” Inevitably, he storms to the front of a U.N. meeting to harangue those assembled and be dragged off — which plays exactly like the self-serving stunt it is.
These japes only do a disservice to the film’s many serious allegations. They also underline the pic’s selective silence on the U.N.’s continued value on many fronts, or how escalating global terrorism and political and religious extremism makes enforcing goals of moderation ever more difficult. If the U.N. took a harder line as world “cop,” would China, for instance, simply quit the org? Would the U.S.? But Horowitz is more interested in joking around.
A theatrical late-bloomer, the docu started production in 2006 and preemed in Rotterdam in 2009, which explains its less-than-up-to-the-minute tenor. Archival materials culled are often amusing (from old propagandic cartoons to clips from “Team America: World Police”). Tech/design work is sharp.