‘The Ambassador’ Review
In a time of intense niche-marketing, particularly of lower budget films, it is quite refreshing to come away from a movie and think, “wait, what the hell did I just see?”
At its core 'The Ambassador' is, I think, a finger-pointing piece of first person journalism, but it's served-up in such an unusual way that is both enjoyable and vexing. The finger points, but it never wags, and that omission is what makes 'The Ambassador' both noteworthy and unsettling.
If you are to cough or rustle in your seat you may miss the five-seconds of voice over that explains that Mads Brugger is a Danish journalist intentionally exploring the corrupt underworld of international diplomacy. Every other moment in this gonzo picture presents him as Mads Cortzen, a would-be Danish businessman with a crisp suit, dark sunglasses, cigarette holder and unabashed transparency regarding his motives. He wants to become a member of the international diplomatic community for the sole ability to go through airports without having his bags checked. His goal is to get diamonds out of the Central African Republic, which he refers to as a “Jurassic Park” for those who pine for a 1970s-style Africa mired in chaos and corruption.
The first of several jaw-drops come as Brugger/Cortzen shows (through hidden cameras) just how simple it is to buy false diplomatic credentials. Many cash-starved governments recognize this as a cottage industry, and brokers are hiding in plain sight on the Internet. After a few transactions, our slick hero, making vague claims about opening a match factory, finds himself a special ambassador from Liberia to the Central African Republic. He has a fake Liberian address, college degree and driver's license.
After opening an office in the most visible hotel in the CAR's capital, he is quick to receive high ranking cabinet members and fellow diplomats as guests. With the introduction of bribes (“envelopes of happiness,” they're called) doors swiftly open for him to, sure, open a match factory, but also to work out a deal with a diamond mine operation that will allow him to carry as many shiny baubles back to Europe that he stuff into a briefcase.
Along the way Brugger presents his Cortzen “character” as just brash enough to be believable. He dresses like Klaus Kinski in 'Fitzcarraldo' and has a similar swagger. He's quick to make inspiring “speeches,” to his business partners or to the tribe of local pygmies who will, ostensibly, be working for him. There's a touch of the Sacha Baron Cohen going on here, if it all weren't so tragic. This region has more than its share of armed conflict and who knows how much blood was spilled to get the sack of diamonds that arrive in the third act.
Indeed, by the end of the movie there's a bit of a tonal shift. Not only are we questioning if Brugger (and the film) have gone in too deep, we soon recognize that it isn't quite as easy to pull this scheme off as was first thought. Suddenly, Brugger's documents aren't quite good enough to get him out of the country scot free. To make the danger clearer, the Minister of Interior Security (an enormous, oafish exiled Frenchman who seems right out of a Mike Leigh film) mysteriously ends up dead. Brugger went to the CAR thinking he was the smartest man in the room, but now the greedy hands may sense a sucker.
Things end well for our reporter, and some real-world repercussions from the film appear to have the country of Liberia reassessing their diplomatic programs. However, the film's extreme verite style does make for some ethical dilemmas. It is impossible not to root for our lead as he bulls---s his way through one meeting after another. Yet he is a boorish and frequently racist snob. Brugger's decision to never pull down the facade and go for a '60 Minutes'-style summation is, no doubt, part of the reason this movie is getting an international release in the first place. But does that make his actions, and all of his in-character bribes, worth it? Is Brugger risking his neck to expose corruption or is this all just a stunt to show off who has the most sack in the world of gonzo documentaries? There were moments, many of them, where I honestly could not tell.
‘The Ambassador’ is available on VOD and in select theaters now.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.