In 1962, 21-year-old U.S. Army private James Joseph Dresnok left his post on the border between North and South Korea, crossed the treacherous, two-mile-long Demilitarized Zone and defected to the Communist north. His contact with the West ceased that day — until filmmaker Daniel Gordon ventured into the rarely filmed environs of North Korea to detail his extraordinary life for this documentary. The film finds Dresnok much older, but no less fiery as he relates his life before, during and after the defection to the notoriously anti-American country — an act born not of ideology but of a need to escape a life marred by a failed foster home youth, a ruined marriage and an inability to conform to strict military rules. The North is not without troubles, either. Dresnok is used as a propaganda tool and left disillusioned for years before eventually embracing Communism, becoming a movie star in Kim-Jong Il's notorious films and finally settling into relaxed refuge with a wife and family.
The extravagances run deep, but they are riveted by new and archival footage and interviews with people from Dresnok's past and present. The revelations create a character study as tense as any Cold War thriller, while also providing essential glimpses into a country long isolated. Grade: A