Film Review: U.N. Me

Pugnacious documentary charges the United Nations with everything from gross incompetence to aiding and abetting genocide. The multipronged assault is mostly successful except when undermined by co-director Ami Horowitz’s cornball Michael Moore a

The thesis of Ami Horowitz and Matthew Groff’s attack documentary is sublimely simple: The United Nations is an incompetent shell of an organization barely able to manage its own personnel, much less live up to its mandate of protecting human rights and securing peace. Slow-moving, planet-sized and hyper-bureaucratized, the organization is an immensely rewarding target, and one that seems to be the definition of a sacred cow. It’s a shame, then, that the filmmakers’ hyperactive style rushes viewers through a hasty slideshow of horrifying grievances instead of dwelling in any depth on more than a couple of them. It’s a double shame that Horowitz—who serves as the film’s nervy host/provocateur—gets in the way more often than not by trying to jam his half-Michael Moore, half-Sacha Baron Cohen persona into a film that would have been many times more powerful without it.

Horowitz and Groff’s framing device is a particularly ugly episode from the U.N.’s recent past: the 2009 Anti-Racism Conference in Geneva, where the keynote address was given by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The vile absurdity of that moment hardly needs any more critique and so it makes sense that Horowitz moves on to other sins and misdemeanors. Things don’t start off strongly, with Horowitz wandering the empty halls of the United Nations after working hours while “Ghost Town” plays on the soundtrack. (The film shows a strong penchant for cheap sound cues and sight gags throughout.) But after that comes the first of his most disturbing segments: U.N. peacekeepers in Cote d’Ivoire who seem to spend more time at the beach, going to brothels and even gunning down peaceful protestors than actually keeping the peace. It’s a harrowing story, but again one that is severely handicapped by the filmmakers’ need for unnecessary gag-making (a short segment called “Peacekeepers Gone Wild,” which makes for particularly wan satire).

What follows is likely more familiar to many viewers, namely the “oil for food” bribery scandal around the Iraqi oil embargo and accusations that the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency has been spectacularly ineffective at its stated mission of stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons. For this reason alone, the doc would be less interesting at this point anyway. But additionally, the filmmakers use a more familiar roster of critics here (Republican politicians and soapboxing anti-internationalists like Frank Gaffney) trying to score political points. Elsewhere, the film bolsters its arguments much better by an ability to produce stark testimony from a range of former employees (weapons inspectors and peacekeepers) and others with more first-hand experience.

U.N. Me hits a fever pitch of outrage when it comes to how pathetically inept the U.N. has been at stopping mass atrocities. The story (still not told enough) of how Canadian general Romeo Dallaire’s pleas to his superiors at the U.N. to allow his peacekeepers to intervene in the opening stages of the 1994 Rwandan genocide fell on deaf ears is as damning an indictment as one could need. The film roars from that episode into an account of how the U.N. tried to water down a report from Nobel Prize-winning human-rights activist Jody Williams (whose fire-breathing impatience with bureaucracy is as close to a heroic attitude as one can find in this film) about the massacres in Darfur.

Throughout the film, Horowitz proves to be a better Cohen impersonator than would-be Moore, adeptly playing verbal rope-a-dope with unctuously grinning dictatorship diplomats. If he had dialed down the gags (most of which aren’t particularly funny to begin with), though, his film could have packed a serious punch. As such, it will struggle to find viewers among documentary audiences, no matter how urgent its message is.