The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Ambassador

Every so often, a documentary comes around that is a work of high-wire audaciousness. Michael Moore's Roger & Me and Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me come to mind, as now does Mads Brugger's The Ambassador. Brugger, a filmmaker and journalist, literally puts his life in danger for this provocative work. Early on, he's warned that if anyone figures out what he's up to, they may well kill him. Watching the movie is both an uncomfortable and an electrifying experience.

Brugger's aim is to expose something many people may not be aware of: with enough money, one can buy a diplomatic title to a third world nation and exploit its resources. Posing as a businessman who wants to open a matchstick factory in the middle of the war-torn Central African Republic, Brugger negotiates with a broker who sets him up with the necessary paperwork and a position as a diplomat – for an outrageous price, of course. Once there to set up shop, he begins trying to negotiate for the purchase of the region's diamonds (i.e. the dreaded “blood diamonds”). Brugger soon discovers that the entire system is corrupt. Suspicious business contracts lock him into absurd legal requirements. The diamond miner he works with keeps hazy with the details of how their agreement will work. Despite repeatedly paying large sums of money, he can never get quite the right certifications he needs. In one meeting after another, with one shady “official” after another, Brugger is led further into the morass.

Mads Brugger is a practitioner of something he calls “performance journalism,” which involves attempting to enter some sort of milieu by creating an exaggerated caricature of the people who operate within it. With The Ambassador, he casts himself as a high roller, a guy with money to burn and dark desires to feed. While it's not a technique that “60 Minutes” would advocate, the director's subject matter isn't conducive to a traditional approach. By inserting himself into the story, Brugger gets access to people and information that would otherwise remain obscured from view. Much of the movie is shot with hidden cameras, because the individuals he encounters would never dream of being “on the record” with their unethical, immoral practices.

The Ambassador is astounding in the way it pulls the curtain on the horrifying practice of selling diplomatic titles. Anyone with enough cash, no matter how crazy they may be, can technically buy an influential position in impoverished country. That same rich person can make himself much richer, even though the area's residents are dirt poor. I find that frightening. Moreover, the movie shows that, in the CAF at least, corruption itself is the whole point, a way of keeping everyone thoroughly confused. The only ones who really understand the “system” are the same ones who would never reveal its rules. By creating an impenetrable bureaucratic mess, they can take advantage of whomever they like, however they like.

Always riveting and occasionally scary, The Ambassador is marred slightly by one big error. During the conclusion, when the stakes for Brugger are higher than ever, he chooses to leave one key question about his ruse unanswered. The director excuses this away by saying that certain things must happen in secret. If the point of being a journalist is to expose the truth, it seems a bit hypocritical to leave some of the truth unreported when it potentially paints oneself in an unflattering light. Moreover, telling what happened would have added to the impact of The Ambassador, because it would indicate what people do when stuck in a position where there are no ethical options from which to choose.

I won't let that stop me from recommending The Ambassador to you most highly. It's a real eye-opener, a gutsy piece of investigative journalism mixed with a splash of performance art. No matter what you think of Brugger's tactics, he cheerfully turns on the lights in a dark room, forcing all the cockroaches to scatter. This is a compulsively watchable, hot button documentary that will leave you unnerved.

( 1/2 out of four)

Note: The Ambassador is currently in limited theatrical release. It is also playing on video-on-demand, so check your favorite VOD source for details.

The Ambassador is unrated R but contains adult language. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.

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