U.N. Me (Horowitz and Goff, 2009)

If it does nothing else, U.N. Me provides ample evidence that anyone who wants to trash the practices and performance of the United Nations has plenty of material to choose from: “peacekeepers” getting money for lying on the beach or terrorizing the native population; endless bureaucrats that can’t even agree on a definition for the word “terrorism”; a structure of inclusion that undercuts its moral credibility when making reports or recommendations about human rights violations.

U.N. Me describes scandal after scandal with a relentless dullness and surprisingly glib attitude.

If the content of the documentary is sufficient to warrant its existence, the tone of it is grating and ultimately self-defeating. Co-director Ami Horowitz inserts himself into the film, and while that is usually okay–it is more and more common in documentaries these days–the result is like a conservative cross between a Daily Show segment and a Roger Moore parody on Saturday Night Live. Horowitz films himself on the telephone requesting an interview. Horowitz sneaks onto a U.N. bus and tries–unsuccessfully–to get the dignitaries to sing “99 Bottles of Beer on The Wall.” (When they don’t, he lambastes them in a voice-over for being too uptight.) Horowitz asks an interview subject if his shirt looks “too gay.”

I enjoy The Daily Show, though I actually think it does a better job than U.N. Me of separating, however marginally, the satire (usually in segments or monologues) from the argument (usually in the interviews).  Moore’s documentaries have never done much for me. The aggressive shoving of microphones into the face of a security person while shouting speeches in the form of questions inflames a base, but does it actually inform those who want to know more about the subject? A shocking amount of time in U.N. Me is spent on such stunts, with editorial voice-overs that instruct viewers what to think about what they are watching. The editing is also somewhat haphazard, with jumps from subject to subject connected with the barest structural devices (intertitles with quotes from forthcoming responses) and repeated catch phrases (citizens of member nations would be aghast what their tax dollars are used to perform).

Even with the problems in execution, the film would probably earn a pass if it had even a rudimentary thesis. Should the United Nations be abolished? Reformed? Should the United States (or other nations) withdraw? Is the problem hopeless? The easiest part of any argument in a complex world is poking holes at what someone else is doing, but U.N. Me offers nothing in the way of alternatives to the status quo it so emphatically mocks.

Issues such as civil war, human trafficking, and nuclear proliferation are grave enough that shining a light on them is often enough to earn a documentary a thumbs up. Every time U.N. Me makes a point, however, it follows it up with a scene from Team America: World Police or a sophomoric insult from a reporter who seems to be mistaking smugness for scorn. When Trey Parker and Matt Stone are the prosecution’s star witness, it is hard to take his case seriously.

No, strike that. It’s easy enough to take the case seriously. It’s just hard to convince yourself that Horowitz is. U.N. Me should have left viewers weeping. Instead it somehow manages to be so self-aggrandizing that it deflects any irritation we might have about the international organization onto the filmmakers themselves.

 

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