A deftly constructed, consistently engrossing and frequently flat-out-hilarious account of a controversial sporting event with geopolitical implications, “Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang” arrives just in time to serve as a stranger-than-fiction companion piece to “The Interview.” Director Colin Offland strikes the perfect balance of bemused spectator and impartial commentator while offering an up-close, behind-the-scenes account of the much-publicized 2014 basketball tournament organized by the indefatigably flamboyant Dennis Rodman in the infamously repressive North Korea, during which Rodman and other retired NBA greats were pitted against a dream team of local basketballers as a kinda-sorta birthday tribute to dictator Kim Jong-un, arguably the world’s least likely hoops fan. It’s a slam-dunk certainty that this documentary will score in just about every platform where it competes.
Coming across as engaging eccentric, mellow voluptuary, drunken buffoon and political naif, Rodman is viewed with what might be called the documentarian’s version of tough love as he braves criticism, censure and even death threats between and during a series of sorties to Pyongyang.
First, he agrees to play with the Harlem Globetrotters in North Korea for the amusement of local B-ball fans, only to find afterwards that, truth to tell, Kim — affectionately known to millions as the Marshal — doesn’t think much of the Globetrotters’ style of play. On the other hand, the Marshal views Rodman as a superstar and all-around good guy. This improbably paves the way for a basketball tournament that Rodman feels might be the modern-day equivalent of the 1970s Ping-Pong matches that led to President Nixon’s historic visit to China.
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Unfortunately, the Obama administration — and, the documentary implies, most Americans across the political spectrum — do not approve of Rodman’s roundball diplomacy, which flies in the face of U.S. foreign policy. Even more unfortunately, the proposed basketball extravaganza is scheduled just when U.S.-N.K. relations are at a particularly edgy impasse, after the arrest by N.K. officials of Korean-American evangelical minister Kenneth Bae, who’s accused of conspiring to overthrow Rodman’s new best buddy, the Marshal. (It should be noted that the image-conscious league officials refused to grant the filmmakers permission to use any vintage NBA game footage of Rodman on the court.)
Helmer Offland and his crew capture (and shrewdly enhance) several remarkable moments, ranging from an overhead view of the relentless rush by Rodman and others through a veritable army of journalists in a Beijing airport (ingeniously underscored by a sweet rendition of “Silent Night”) to Rodman’s jovial back-and-forth with the Marshal during an intermission in the basketball tournament.
“It’s still a strange sight,” remarks narrator Matt Cooper, who demonstrates an impressive ability to turn on a dime from whimsy to seriousness throughout. “The leader of the world’s most controlled state and America’s most out-of-control celebrity laughing and joking like a couple of old college buddies.”
As “Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang” makes very clear, however, Rodman very nearly sabotaged his own sideshow. After battling alcoholism most of his life, he did not fall so much as dive off the wagon when he returned to Pyongyang with his team of NBA veterans. The filmmakers sympathetically acknowledge that Rodman was under tremendous pressure — after all, there were the aforementioned death threats on his mind — but they’re brutally revealing as they record Rodman making an international spectacle of himself.
Some moments — such as Rodman’s impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday” in tribute to Kim Jong-Un before the basketball tournament — are uproariously funny. More often, however, Rodman’s vertiginous mood swings, particularly during a satellite-feed CNN interview, are ineffably unsettling. Much like the recent “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” a deeply affecting doc about the Alzheimer’s-stricken Campbell’s final concert tour, “Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang” often makes us feel as though we are watching the efforts of a bomb-disposal squad. We can’t help feeling that, at any moment, the entire project could blow up in the filmmakers’ faces.
Former NBA player Charles Smith gradually emerges as the grown-up in the room, taking charge of the U.S. team — and doing damage control as his teammates seriously reconsider their commitment to playing in the Pyongyang event — when things veer perilously close to getting completely out of hand.
Meanwhile, sporadic comic relief is provided by Joe Terwilliger, a Columbia U. statistical geneticist who fortuitously accompanies Rodman and the gang on this wild ride. Whether he’s registering amazement or performing karaoke, Terwilliger seems very much like a character who, had this been a feature instead of a documentary, might be played by Seth Rogen. No kidding.