Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang (2015) is probably the documentary to be seeing right now, made timely once again not just by the fact that it gives us a deep view of what was arguably the prelude to the summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, but also because it shows us how the stage has been set for the current talks. Dennis Rodman himself will be in Singapore during the DPRK–US summit on June 12. If Donald Trump was smart, he would have made sure to review this documentary before going, and he likely has seen it since it is easier to digest, and to remember, than countless briefings, charts, and reports presented by bureaucrats and specialist advisers. If anything the celebrity value of Rodman would have drawn Trump’s attention—especially as Trump will only be the second wayward, maverick US celebrity to interact with Kim Jong-un. Rodman may have offered the North Koreans some good practice, in much more than just basketball techniques.
Rodman and the US–DPRK Peace Summit
Dennis Rodman is the de facto “goodwill ambassador” that links the US with North Korea. Dennis Rodman, with North Korean officials, is probably responsible for getting the ball rolling on what has become the summit between Kim and Trump: “I don’t ask Donald Trump for anything. I like Donald Trump. He’s a good friend, and I’ve always asked him to talk to me because the good people of North Korea and the government asked me to talk to Donald Trump about what they want and how we can solve things.” Rodman has been to North Korea on five trips, and has appeared twice on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” show. Rodman is the obvious bridge between the two. Rodman also gave a copy of Trump’s Art of the Deal to the North Korean sports minister during a visit to Pyongyang in June 2017. With most of the US corporate media unhappy with Rodman’s earlier trips to North Korea, it’s not surprising to still see major US media such as Reuters producing such dismissive scorn, even as the peace summit is about to actually happen. None of the media have been willing to revise their opinions and recognize the man’s genius, and how it has borne fruit.
The White House seemed particularly anxious to distance itself from Rodman, possibly because of the desire to monopolize all credit should there be successful outcomes to the talks. Asked if Rodman had been invited to Singapore—as if Rodman needed an invitation to freely and privately travel to a destination of his choice—Trump answered: “No, he wasn’t, but I like Dennis,” before going into a short discussion of Rodman’s genius as a skilful “rebounder,” which may have been an allusion to something else, such as Rodman being “the perfect middleman”. Rodman “is great on the court but negotiations should be left to those who are good at it…Trump is the best,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told Fox News on June 7, adding that he expected Kim and Trump to have “an amazing conversation without Dennis Rodman in tow”. Gidley is obviously minimizing what Rodman had already achieved over five years of travels to North Korea and in developing a personal friendship with Kim Jong-un—and that relationship stands as a fact that neither Trump nor any US diplomat can claim. Even fewer people will recognize the obvious: that North Korea waited for a renegade figure (like Rodman) to appear in the White House before initiating its biggest diplomatic experiment to date. It also required a bit of a renegade to be in power in Pyongyang, one who has his own admiration for select aspects of US popular culture, which is not to suggest that Kim Jong-un is seeking to become North Korea’s Gorbachev (arguably the one possible candidate for that position was executed, though not by being “fed to a pack of starving dogs” as the lurid demonization of the Western media echo chamber would have it).
That the role of celebrities (Rodman, Trump), entertainment (sports, merchandise), played out on television, should all feature so prominently in the making of this summit is probably going to be the subject of someone’s book one day that addresses the unparalleled role of spectacle in defining the Trump presidency—and hopefully it will be an unusual book, that is, written with sensitivity, intelligence, maturity and none of the usual hectoring partisanship that poses as “scholarship” these days.
As for lacking class, or even a minimally sane level of rationality, Fox News is hopefully something that Trump has learned to watch selectively. Right up to the summit Fox News has been infested with an inordinate number of dangerously idiotic talking heads from various “think” tanks (ironically named), who would advise Trump to not even offer so much as a handshake when meeting Kim Jong-un for the first time. In other words, the advice of these experts on diplomacy is that Trump should be flat out rude—just not to allow a “photo op”. Inflating the value of merely meeting with the US president—as if he were some sort of god—is precisely part of the problem and a major reason why these talks did not happen before now. Not even Obama the supposed scholar, who once trumpeted his willingness to “meet with America’s adversaries,” ever pulled off anything like the summit with North Korea, let alone with North Korea itself. That is Trump’s achievement, like it or not: it never happened with any prior US president.
The war-making class in the US, of such elephantine proportions, would not have wanted this summit with North Korea to ever happen. As a result, “advice” given on Fox News by the militarist lobby consists of a one-sided list of instructions to deliver to North Korea, with no US concessions, and a permanent US military occupation of South Korea left untouched. Again, let’s hope Trump has learned to switch off such dangerous tools.
Sports have played a long and perhaps not fully appreciated role in diplomacy, just as sports have been an important part of both cultural imperialism and nation-building. (In fact, another documentary dealing with sport diplomacy will appear on this site in the coming weeks, focusing on hockey.) If no one is calling Rodman’s basketball diplomacy in North Korea “cultural imperialism,” it’s because it was voluntarily received on the North Koreans’ part, not an imposition, nor driven by a desire to purely imitate Americans, the relationship was between equals and was friendly, and it has resulted in no loss to North Korea. In addition, Rodman was not sent to North Korea as part of any foreign government’s initiative—which is probably why so much was done to sink the venture and to personally smear Rodman.
Dennis Rodman vs. “Wild Enemy Stories”
This takes us back to this unique little documentary, Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang, which runs for approximately 95 minutes and which I have had the pleasure to view four times before writing this. It is an exciting, captivating, thrilling film—not without its shortcomings, but also not without its significant strengths. (A trailer and two clips are shown below.) If you plan to see the film soon, then be aware of the “spoilers” below; you might want to first see the film and then perhaps come back.
First, the movie opens in a disturbingly familiar fashion: by restating the standard, misleading, and even historically incorrect tropes about North Korea. The opening lines, read by Matt Cooper, are as follows:
“Welcome to North Korea. The world’s most isolated and repressive state—a country that’s always been on the outside, ever since its birth at the end of the Second World War, when Korea was torn in two. The Soviet Union had to establish a Communist state in the North, and installed Kim Il-sung as leader. Kim’s failed attempt to conquer the South during the Korean War led to a four-kilometre wide buffer zone being built between the two nations, the most heavily militarized border on the planet. Today North Korea remains an anomaly, cut off both politically and geographically from the modern world. But one man is on a mission to change all of that, with a basketball”.
At this point I was ready to just stop watching the film, the first time I viewed it. Fortunately I continued, since the statement above ends up serving as a foil that virtually the rest of the film counters. In actuality, there are two films, or a film in two phases, and the closing half is a mirror image of the opening half—by the end of the film, the state (and society) which the US basketball players fear the most is the American one, and they dread returning to it. The film is neither explicitly nor neatly divided into two halves: this is just my device for sorting out the film’s internal contrasts.
Opening Bravado Put to the Challenge
The documentary is ostensibly about “the most controversial sporting event the world has never seen,” also described as an “historic, epic” moment by one of the American players. It opens in September, 2013, when the venture to send US basketball players is the product of the intentions of a medley of odd actors—so ad hoc that one could almost speculate the CIA was indirectly involved, but also bizarre enough that it suggested an adventure beyond anyone’s control, until Dennis Rodman took control. At first, the idea—which involved sending the Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea (which never happened, because Kim Jong-un neither understood the purpose of their clowning, nor did he like it being a proper aficionado of basketball)—was the plan by an Irish betting firm, Paddy Power, and Vice media which proposed a documentary for HBO. At this point, Dennis Rodman is described by the planners as a mere “figurehead”.
Paddy Power was involved apparently as a publicity stunt. The company had already established a reputation for its headline-grabbing events. Just by chance, when executives saw on the front page a story of their company taking bets on the next Pope, next to news that Dennis Rodman was invited to North Korea, they simply put the two ideas together: Paddy Power and North Korea. As Rodman says in the film, Paddy Power is one of those companies that “loves entertainment, loves excitement, intriguing things,” and that the event would help put them on the (world) map. Quickly and in passing, at one point in the film (circa the 17 minute mark), the narrator says Rodman won the support of someone “in an official capacity,” but it’s not clear who that might be.
In the opening half as well we hear the usual mythology of the US’ foreign enemies, and it is tested very quickly. First, Dennis Rodman sounds off with familiar American bravado, like going to North Korea would be a special test of his manhood, being so dangerous, so vile, so scary. However, very quickly he turns that around:
“Next thing you know the word got out that, you know, I’m going to North Korea, and then all of a sudden all the negativity started coming out about North Korea, you know about how ‘the country is bad,’ how ‘they kidnap people,’ these ‘crazy’…you know, ‘you’ll never come back,’ all these different type of wild, wild enemy stories”.
“Wild enemy” is something with which Rodman is familiar, as the appointed outsider, “the most flamboyant, in-your-face American celebrity around,” as the narrator puts it. North Korea, on the other hand, is depicted in the first half of the documentary as a country that places emphasis on “order, conformity, and little freedom of expression”—and by the second half of the film, that line better describes the US. After all, it was North Korea’s leadership that wanted Rodman in their country. Far from fearing difference, non-conformity, the unusual and the unorthodox, this was instead their preferred entry point for encountering the US. The film narrator says, “you wouldn’t have thought he’d be welcomed” in North Korea, when instead he was, which creates a problem for the standard narrative.
The apparent bravado comes back in the first half, the daring-do confrontation with “danger,” when we hear from Rodman’s very amiable, very capable, personal assistant, Vo:
“I’ll tell you what, I was the only one in the office that, you know, back home that was, really wanted to go. Other people were not sure, they’ve heard, you know, a lot of things through the media, and I was like, you know: ‘I’m going!…I wanna be there, I want to see what it’s all about’. I want to see the truth!”
Yet again the narrative is tested, motivated by a basic distrust of the media. If anything, what the media were saying that was negative about North Korea only served to fire up the engines of curiosity. Some individuals had to see for themselves, and learn for themselves, and in fact it’s the US media that come out as one of the major villains of this story, next to corporate sponsors.
Still the old narrative clings to the film in the first half. There is the usual test of courage, like a feat of strength, which supposedly all American males of high status must undergo when in a dangerous foreign land. The prize is usually to return home with some conveniently labelled “hostage” or some golden promise. In Rodman’s case, he stood up to toast Kim Jong-un at his first meeting, and allegedly said, “Marshal, your father and grandfather did some fucked up shit, but you’re trying to change that, and I love you for that”. Dennis and Vo expected everything to end there, but instead Kim stood up and smiled, and clapped—and then they realized they could “get away with anything”. We don’t know if this really happened, and if it did, we don’t know what Kim understood or what he thought (which could well have been, “these fucking American idiots are such loudmouths that it’s funny”). It seems the only real test here was a test of Kim Jong-un’s patience and graciousness as a host.
Just how terrible was North Korea? As Dennis Rodman explains, everything was “five star, six star, seven star,” everything was “so much fun,” and “everyday was so perfect”.
Cutting a Path for Friendship through History
Rodman claims that he developed a close “friendship, bond wise” with Kim Jong-un. He is said to have boasted that he was “the first non-North Korean to hold” Kim’s baby. There is little reason to doubt him. If the US government did not consult with Rodman at any point, before Trump went to the summit in Singapore, then it would have been irresponsible to the point of irrational stupidity. The one person you would want to hear most from right now is Dennis Rodman.
Then we see the start of what will be one of the film’s three central controversies: that the basketball game to be played on January 8, 2014, will thus take place on the birthday of Kim Jong-un (therefore appearing to be a personal gift, homage paid to “the dictator”). The other two controversies are the execution of Kim’s uncle, the so-called second in command, and the imprisonment of Korean-American Christian evangelist, Kenneth Bae. Rodman thought it was a perfectly good idea to have the basketball game on Kim’s birthday, and it seems to have been a common sense sort of idea rather than a politically-motivated statement. Each of these controversies were manufactured by Western media into choke-holds for Rodman: he was supposed to shun the birthday, avoid going to the country because of “the purge,” and somehow pressure North Korea to release Bae—or have his reputation ruined.
Rodman sought to “bridge the gap between North Korea and the United States”. That was his most basic aim. Here the film narration goes, quickly, into some history. First, we are reminded of a previous occasion when sport diplomacy mattered, specifically the ping-pong diplomacy that opened the way for Richard Nixon’s famous rapprochement with China in the early 1970s. Rodman explicitly hoped to pave the way, 40 years later, for a US “reset” with North Korea. In 1994, when tensions between North Korea and the US escalated to the point where war seemed likely, then US president Bill Clinton sent former president Jimmy Carter to North Korea, to meet with Kim Il-sung—still the highest level political encounter between the two countries, until the Singapore summit on June 12. What happened after Carter’s visit? Tensions cooled off, until George W. Bush came into office and declared North Korea to be part of the “Axis of Evil”—effectively reigniting conflict with North Korea and signalling that the North had better take defensive action, or else. The documentary firmly states this, the correct chronology: Kim Jong-il only reactivated North Korea’s nuclear program after Bush’s speech. Barack Obama instead adopted a posture of “strategic patience,” meaning that he would refuse to speak with Kim Jong-un. As a result, given how Rodman’s campaign “flew in the face” of US foreign policy, the Obama administration publicly disavowed Rodman’s efforts.
The price to be paid by Dennis Rodman, for a basketball game, was to be high. Vilified in the US media, he received death threats, complaints from fans, and pressure from friends. Apparently it drove Rodman over the edge, and it caused him to revive his past problems with alcoholism. Far from the bravado of the opening half of the film, now Rodman cries, and insists that his job is not to change things, that he is no Martin Luther King Jr.—but he does point out that “no Jay-Z, no Beyoncé” is doing what he is doing. Rodman however refused to take on the imposed task of somehow securing the release of Kenneth Bae:
“I can’t sit there and say, ‘Hey, you know what? Hey Marshal, can you let this guy free? Hey guy, can you do that for me? Can you do one thing…can I go up and take him back to America?’…[shaking his head]: That’s not my job”.
Speaking to teammates later in the film, warning them about what fellow player Charles Smith called media “vultures,” Rodman repeats that he is not a politician and his job is not to “rescue” people. Thus more than once Rodman challenges the “humanitarian” missionary imperative at the centre of the US liberal imperialist rationale, not in these words but on his own terms.
As for Rodman’s problem with alcoholism, it repeatedly becomes a major issue in the film: he makes horrendous scenes in front of stoic North Korean officials, virtually derails an interview with CNN, and then blows a chance to meet with Kim Jong-un at a luxury ski resort after Rodman decided to get absolutely wasted. By the end of the film he checks into a rehabilitation program, and claims to be moving on. However, the filmmakers mince no words: they directly accuse the establishment of pushing Dennis Rodman to press the self-destruct button.
An Odd Band of Characters
Almost everyone in the film is an “unusual character”. We meet one such interesting character, based in Seoul—Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia Deputy Director at the International Crisis Group. Pinkston, no radical, nonetheless exhibits a sense of realism that is a major departure from what howls through the hallways of Washington. Pinkston supported Rodman’s efforts. He called what Rodman was doing a way of spreading “new thinking” which would “change minds” and lead to “new policy”—and he was not proven wrong. Pinkston says in the film that he was puzzled, seeing no “reason or rationale” in all of the emotional reactions against Rodman’s campaign. Pinkston also challenges viewers to reconsider why North Korean officials would show the US basketball players the very best of North Korea—it’s not “propaganda,” as he explains, it’s simply normal for any human being to want to show visitors the best about their home. At the end of the film, Pinkston reappears to comment on the oddity of a state that values conformity and compliance, yet welcomes difference and nonconformity in the figure of Rodman, and what impact that could have on the thinking of North Koreans.
The other interesting character is a professor of human genetics, Joe Terwilliger at Columbia University. Terwilliger is probably one of the more “subversive” figures in the film, by the dominant American standards: he does not speak of a “North” Korea—when he is speaking of the DPRK he calls it just Korea (which is a way of delegitimizing the US-imposed division, while recognizing the claim of the DPRK government to represent the legitimate aspirations of all Koreans). Terwilliger speaks (and sings) in Korean, he loves North Korea and its people, and he was teaching human genetics there during summers. Speaking of Rodman, Terwilliger explains: “What he’s trying to do with sports, is similar to what I was trying to do with science….science, music, culture, sports, are all things that are innocuous where you can build relationships between people”. (Well, we may disagree on just how innocuous they are.)
Terwilliger goes further:
“It’s a wonderful place to visit. I look forward to the chance of trying to help bridge this gap we have between what Americans think about Korea and what Koreans think about America. Americans don’t have an accurate perception of what things are like here, understandably so, because they don’t get any accurate coverage of what the situation is—they don’t know….The Korean people are so friendly and warm and inviting even if I am [chuckling] a ‘US imperialist bastard,’ they’re still nice to me”.
Rodman collects other “odd” types along the way—as Rodman’s agent states in the film, “What are the odds?” that they would find these two or three, rare anomalies, “this curious band of characters”: Americans with experience in North Korea. Importantly, those who had such personal experience, all favoured Rodman’s efforts.
The basketball players accompanying Rodman were: Cliff Robinson, Doug Christie, Kenny Anderson, Guy “Easy J” Dupree, Vin Baker, Andre “Silk” Pool, Antoine Scott, and Charles Smith. The coach was Eric “Sleepy” Floyd. It was an excellent group of people: mature, articulate, humorous, and sensitive sorts who obviously got along very well together.
Corporations and the Media: Trying to Shut Down Rodman
While there is no neat dividing line down the middle of the film, we enter new territory around the 32 minute mark. This is when Dennis Rodman, as explained by the documentary, becomes the “focal point” of “media anger”. Paddy Power apparently has a distaste for “intrigue” that extends beyond schoolboy pranks—and it thus pulled out as North Korea became the subject of “intense, intense international scrutiny,” according to a Paddy Power executive. However, Paddy Power’s withdrawal also meant that Dennis Rodman was no longer a mere “figurehead”—now the whole thing became what the narrator calls, “the Dennis Rodman show”.
Later in the film, the corporate sponsors of the various basketball stars accompanying Rodman threaten to withdraw their sponsorship. This caused a major crisis, and all by itself threatened to end any prospects for a match. It was only late the night before the game that the American players decided to stay and press on.
However, the media really stand out in this affair, and we can see how for years now the US media, as corporate propaganda outfits that uniformly always advocate for regime change, have earned popular distrust and well-deserved contempt. A major point in the film comes with an interview between CNN’s Chris Cuomo and the entire team of basketball players in North Korea, where Rodman is baited to the point of shouting. What was amazing was Rodman’s refusal to obey the official US line that Kenneth Bae was an innocent hostage—he reminded Cuomo that Bae violated North Korean laws, which CNN refused to ever state.
Rodman also made a point of reminding CNN viewers that he and his peers were being subjected to extraordinary abuse in the US…and then, in highly prophetic terms, he declared: “One day, one day, this door’s going to open, because of these 10 guys here”.
In an act that would serve to demonize Rodman, he sang “Happy Birthday” to Kim Jong-un at the opening of the basketball match, seemingly spontaneous and not as part of a pre-planned gesture.
By the close of the film, what the American basketball players dread the most is going back to the US and facing hostile American reactions. To be clear, the negativity felt because of the US far outweighs any misgivings the players might have ever had about North Korea, which is a significant statement in itself. That is the focus of the clip I present below.
For me one of the most memorable moments in the film occurs around the 63rd minute mark, with the arrival of Kim Jong-un in the arena. The crowd stands and roars, and roars, in waves of undulating roars. Of course the standard American reaction to all this, the product of considerable media indoctrination, is that this is all staged, fake, phony. Not so. I once had the privilege of having a student in a number of my courses, a mature and intelligent Chinese woman who had worked for many years in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As part of her duties, she was sent with a group of Chinese officials to tour North Korea. I asked her if she saw how North Koreans were shown crying openly at the state funeral of Kim Jong-il, and whether that was staged. Her answer was: “Absolutely not. That was genuine: they genuinely and deeply love their leader. Nobody has to tell them to cry”. This erodes yet another North American myth—that only in North America is our veneration of leaders authentic, whereas in other countries it is all scripted and staged.
The documentary was filmed beautifully, it has to be said. The filming in some cases is just genius: showing a CNN interview with Rodman’s team, as seen from CNN’s side and from Rodman’s side in a North Korean hotel conference room, carefully editing so as to seamlessly interweave the two different vantage points. Even the music is great in the film, from pulsating samples of Korean rock to very melodic traditional folk songs and cheerful nationalist pieces. My main qualm with the filming—and this may have been the result of pressure to fit in everything—is that when the momentous basketball game is finally shown, we do not get a real sense of how it played out: it was rushed, selective, and relatively brief. There was no sense of the drama and excitement that obviously captivated the roaring audience.
The film closes with Prof. Joe Terwilliger making this poignant set of remarks:
“People accuse Dennis Rodman of being crazy, being stupid, and I’ll tell you: he is neither. He is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, once I got to know him. I didn’t expect that before I met him, because we all know he has trouble, sometimes, being articulate….When you see him work, just like when he was on the field, when he’s playing basketball in the court, he can predict what’s going to happen in the future, and he sees things in multiple dimensions. So he’s a very smart, actually smart guy. North Korea is accused of the same damn thing…most of the things [North Korean people] do are completely logical once you understand that their value system and their premises are different. So it’s the same for Dennis and North Korea, and it’s the common bond that unites them: it’s that neither is either stupid, or crazy, they’re just accused of that by the mainstream, and the mainstream of opinion in the media”.
Hopefully “history” will record that it was a small group of unorthodox, free-thinking and independent-minded outliers who were the ones that made the unthinkable possible. These “odd characters” are astronauts in their own right.
I strongly recommend to everyone reading this that you see the film for yourselves. Given the unique nature of the film, the fact that it was the product of being embedded within a challenging experiment of historical importance, this film must be graded at 9.5/10.
Long live Dennis Rodman!