This morning the Associated Press reported that South Korea, Japan and the United States will be signing their first three-way intelligence-sharing pact as part of an effort to address the growing North Korean nuclear threat. Seems like a good time to review the film credited with drawing the Supreme Leader’s recent ire.
It’s been two days since Sony released “The Interview” online, and the kindest accurate criticism I’ve seen on the subject is that this isn’t the worst movie that Sony has ever made.
Undeterred by the fast-forming consensus, like millions of other Americans I settled down in front of the family Roku on Christmas day to watch the film, on what I claimed was a matter of principle. One hundred and twelve minutes later, I feel comfortable saying that the only thing going for this film is that Kim Jong-un supposedly doesn’t want you to see it. That and a brief Eminem cameo.
So convinced was I that “The Interview” would contain scenes worth remembering—if not incisive satire, some instant-classic quotes—that I watched the film armed with a pen and notepad, something I haven’t done since setting out to a theater a decade ago to review “Mean Girls” for my high school newspaper.
Obvious things first. Seth Rogen and James Franco could have really used Tina Fey’s help. This film is the opposite of an iceberg: the overwhelming bulk of it is get-what-you-see buffoonery designed to hit the audience over the head again and again with the same five or six jokes: about brainless chicks, Asian accents, gay margaritas, and feces.
To survive, I spent most of the film trying to distill meaning from what lies beneath. My conclusion—the sum of all blood I squeezed from this stone—is that driving all the onscreen foolishness is a specific, articulable and recognizable desire: the desire to matter in a way that matters.
In the castle that Franco and Rogen have built, there is room for only two kinds of importance: there is real importance, and there is its sad alter ego, fake importance. Our heroes, Dave Skylark and Aaron Rapoport (to whom I will refer henceforth as Franco and Rogen, because why bother with fake nuance), are like our villain Kim in that at the start of the film they ooze with fake importance: the popular talk show that one stars in and the other produces is an enterprise built on tabloid drivel, and the people who matter—for Rogen, this translates to “60 Minutes” staffers—won’t deign to have a civil conversation with them.
Kim Jong-un, likewise, is portrayed as the laughingstock of the world that matters. That would be the Western hemisphere. Like Franco and Rogen, Kim is worshipped exclusively by a kingdom of people who matter not at all—people he starves and terrorizes and brainwashes so thoroughly that they merit maybe a few minutes of screen time. Cue village idiots gaping at their television screens.
I point you to the over-the-top champagne-hosing scene near the start of the film, when Franco and Rogen are celebrating the thousandth episode of their talk show [22:43], and the near-identical champagne-hosing scene that takes place during Franco’s raucous outing with Kim, on a private basketball court, surrounded by topless North Korean women [1:00:16]. Scenes of meaningless excess starring men who themselves are, by cinematic construction, meaningless excess.
How all this ties into the plot, in a nutshell [spoiler alert]: Franco and Rogen travel to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-un in a first-time attempt to cover hard-hitting news; the CIA tasks them with the auxiliary mission of assassinating Kim; Franco and Rogen accomplish both missions and in the process go from trash TV moguls to real-world prominence.
The theme I have identified is a good meta metaphor for the events surrounding the movie’s release. In the wake of the Sony hack, the significance of this otherwise forgettable movie has also gone from fake to real. This movie matters not because it cares, or compels us to care, that the North Koreans have suffered under Kim family tyranny for three generations or that North Korea has neighbors in easy missile-striking range. This movie matters, in the real way, because the unsolved cyberattack that threatened its release is an attack on that fundamental American right that is freedom of speech.
Let me end the way I began, by stating the obvious: freedom of speech matters. I share the general sentiments expressed by President Obama, who applauded Sony’s decision to schedule limited release in cinemas after a disappointing initial vow to pull it from screens everywhere. But anybody who calls this movie “subversive and damn funny” is confusing the hackneyed content of “The Interview” with the off-screen drama over the Sony hack. Let's not pretend that this film, or the publicity the film is currently enjoying, is in any way about rectifying global indifference to Kim’s brutal reign. Although it’s hard to know Kim’s true aims in denouncing the film—whether he actually sees the film’s release as a declaration of war or merely sees it as an excuse to assert his bona fide importance on the international stage—it seems safe to say that Kim’s transition from fake to real-world significance this holiday season has nothing to do with North Koreans’ enduring inability to see this film and everything to do with the brief possibility that Americans would not be able to see it in IMAX.
As for whether "The Interview" has had much to do with upsetting Kim nuclearly, let us note that Kim has been provided plenty of other hooks on which to hang his outrage—such as the United Nations' "groundbreaking" vote last month to adopt a resolution urging the Security Council to refer North Korean leaders to the International Criminal Court for their human rights atrocities. Does that sound, like, really important? Movieforegoers are invited to spend their North Korea bandwidth on reading the "historic" February U.N. report that triggered the vote, on the crimes against humanity ongoing in the Hermit Kingdom.
There is one good line in the movie, and it is delivered by Kim in response to Franco’s ham-fisted attempts to shame the dictator on live television. Kim replies: “Don't you know the United States has more incarcerated people per capita than North Korea?” [1:27:43] That statement could actually be true and is, in any case, a pretty devastating critique on a country that calls itself the leader of the free world while boasting the highest verified incarceration rate in the world. It was the only line to make it to my notepad.