When Sydney Pollack wanted to film The Interpreter in the seclusive U.N. building, then-Secretary General Kofi Annan granted him permission, saying, “[Pollack’s] intention was really to do something dignified, something that is honest and reflects the work that this organization does. And it is with that spirit that the producers and the directors approached their work, and I hope you will all agree they have done that.” How, then, Matthew Groff and Ami Horowitz gained access to the building for their scathing U.N. Me is puzzling, because while it may be “dignified” to hold an organization established to “ensure global security and protect human rights” to its word, the filmmakers take cheap shots, seeing the U.N. as hypocritical and ineffectual. Indeed, Horowitz is seen roaming empty offices looking for someone to speak to, misleading scenes that would have us believe that no one works at the U.N.
A former investment banker for Lehman Brothers, Horowitz is apparently reinventing himself by donning the hat of a political agitator, a la Michael Moore. Appearing in suit and tie, Horowitz isn’t trying to play the role of the common man, but his approach is similar to Moore’s: Aided with a wry sense of humor, he asks sharp, simple questions to his comparably slow and somber targets, making them—not always unfairly—seem anywhere from dishonest to stupefied. This may be good for entertainment, but when you catch someone off guard during an interview, as Horowitz does multiple times (most astonishingly with the Sudanese ambassador to the U.N. over how so many Sudanese were dying if not by genocide), the results can’t be considered all that substantial since their answers, however delusional, are at that point more like confused, defensive reactions to a man whose professional appearance thinly belies his faintly smirking sarcasm.
But U.N. Me isn’t all sneering, and it certainly makes its points. At the get go, however briefly, the doc acknowledges that the U.N. is undeniably valuable because it fights “the spread of disease by vaccinating millions of people, or combating famine by feeding tens of millions more,” and that “during refugee crises it’s often the only actor willing and able to help.” And the film is brave to acknowledge the contradictions inherent in an all-inclusive organization that seeks to prevent war, which is highlighted by the U.N.’s selection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—a Holocaust denier who says there are no gays in his country—as the lead speaker during its 2009 conference on ending racism. The doc’s list of faults against the U.N. arn’t neglibable: how it can’t define what terrorism is because that would mean a number of its members would have to be excluded; how it set up Oil for Food, a program meant to aid the humanitarian needs of ordinary Iraqi citizens, but ended up funding Iraq’s military capabilities; how it failed to prevent genocide in Darfur and Sudan; and how the peacekeepers it sends out into the field are notorious for raping the citizens of other countries, sometimes even children. These embarrassments seem to answer the rhetorical question PJ Harvey evocatively sang on her recent single, “Words That Maketh Murder”: “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”