“Are you journalists or are you entertainers?” a member of the audience demanded of Vice’s Shane Smith and Ryan Duffy after an advance screening of “The Hermit Kingdom: Basketball Diplomacy,” the already infamous final episode of the current first season of their HBO news magazine show. The half-hour installment, which airs tonight, June 14th, at 11pm, is entirely devoted to Vice’s headline-getting coup from earlier this year, when the magazine/media company scored a visit to North Korea under the aegis of a “foreign sports exchange program” involving three members of the Harlem Globetrotters, an exhibition game and Dennis Rodman. The basketball player ended up spending time with Kim Jong-un, whose love of the Chicago Bulls was the reason behind the trip’s approval, the former NBA star quite possibly becoming the first American to meet with Kim since he became the supreme leader of the DPRK following the death of his father Kim Jong-Il in 2011.
On one hand, it’s easy to understand the frustration behind that question from the crowd — which came from a documentarian, Danny Schechter, whose approach in his own work (“WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception,” “Plunder: The Crime of Our Time”) tends toward the journalistic. Consider: A rare documented visit to North Korea leading to an actual meeting with its enigmatic new leader shortly after a sabre-rattling underground nuclear test, and what comes from it is a goofy basketball game, some winks and winces toward the camera from the tattooed Duffy to underline the weirdness of the venture and Rodman coming back to the U.S. to show off his deep understanding of the North Korean reality by insisting to George Stephanopoulos on “This Week” that the country’s notorious prison camps are really no different than what we do here in the U.S. From the beginning, the major weakness of “Vice” has been a lack of context and broader scale intellectual curiosity — aside from Smith’s introductions to each segment, the show puts its immersive/stunt qualities ahead of any desire for analysis, a “can you believe this shit?” approach to reporting that can be frustrating, especially when approaching a scoop like the one in North Korea.
But, yes, it can also be entertaining, and the North Korea episode is certainly that, audaciously compelling throughout if a little thin. Smith is banned from the country thanks to Vice’s previous two pieces about it, including “The Vice Guide to North Korea,” so Duffy instead serves as on-the-ground reporter (and dauntless player in the basketball game). The challenge with being a journalist in North Korea is one of access, and despite a certain validity to that general complaint about Vice’s approach to reporting, it’s difficult to come up with suggestions about what they could have done different during the tightly controlled and highly staged trip — rush Kim at a state dinner to ask some questions, through his official translator, about what his plans are for nuclear escalation?
Instead, Duffy and company focused on getting glimpses outside the variation on the state-sanctioned propaganda tour most visitors are taken on, one that nevertheless provides some of the best imagery. There’s a dolphin show (choreographed, the announcer claims, by Kim) with a packed audience waiting on the Americans’ arrival, a grocery store filled with perfectly arranged imported goods and shopper seemingly jolting into motion only when they get there, and a room full of people at computers “using the internet,” none of them typing or clicking a mouse, one man just staring at the Google homepage. It’s like a “real, live ‘Truman Show’ created just for us,” Duffy observed.
It doesn’t take much to make North Korea look surreal, and the basketball game earns the descriptor, not the least when Rodman, who was an onlooker rather than a participant, stands up to address the attendees. Watching it, for a moment, all you can think is that this is America’s representative to the closed, oppressed nation — the winner of the first and only season of “Hulk Hogan’s Celebrity Championship Wrestling,” there only because he was hired to provide an excuse for “Vice” to have cameras in the country. It’s hilarious and depressing at once.
Duffy and company do manage to find a moment of unscripted interaction with actual North Koreans that provides a smidgen of hope that the visit has the potential to begin what the ping-pong diplomacy it was modeled on did for the U.S. and China — open a tiny line of communication between the two countries, one buried beneath a benign shared interest in sports. And for a deeper and more self-lacerating look at North Korea, the mindset of its loyal citizenry and those who want to prod at it, there’s always Mads Brügger’s 2009 documentary “The Red Chapel,” which follows an excursion into the country that’s sillier and darker than anything “Vice” attempted — it may not be journalism either, but it asks tougher questions of itself than hey, isn’t this place wild?