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“The Interview”: A jester at the court of diplomacy

The Interview is a hilarious buddy comedy, but it's not dark humor -- that's exactly what North Korea wants, and what anyone who wants progress in the country doesn't.

By , 25 Dec 14
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Imperialist running dog Franco and capitalist roader Rogen arrive in Pyongyang.

Yes, The Interview is neither highbrow hipster fare nor Chinese love story (ahem Richard), so it’s a bit out of place on this site. However, I’ll simply refer anyone who somehow happens to be offended by this selection to the weasel words I’ve conveniently inserted in our About page: “‘unconventional’ is a broad term…anything that makes brains think and hearts wrench can pass the test.”

Given recent events, The Interview certainly checks off the box of “making brains think”. It’s certainly gotten our friends in North Korea thinking. Back in June we heard a North Korean representative condemn the film as “desperate” whilst adding that Kim Jong Un planned to see it upon release. However, it seems that Kim might’ve changed his mind and decided that, instead of going back on a promise to see the film, he’d prevent it from being released altogether. We may never know for sure, because as of press time, the media and cybersecurity peanut gallery are still running around trying to figure out whether North Korea really hacked Sony or not. Either way, when the White House starts releasing statements about a Seth Rogen comedy, there’s probably bigger winds blowing than the Pineapple Express.

For me personally, The Interview elicits a panoply of conflicting emotions. On one hand, I’m a pretty big Seth Rogen fan. I found Pineapple Express and Superbad hilarious, and I’ll admit I spent too much time laughing at him and James Franco’s recreation of Kanye West’s “Bound 2” music video. On the other hand, I’m also a massive North Korea geek. I’ve read just about every major English-language book on the country, I read Daily NK and NKNews on a regular basis, and I’ve actually visited North Korea as well (I mean actual North Korea, not just stepping into the blue hut at Panmunjom, though I did get to do that from both sides of the border). Therefore, I see The Interview through two lens: one cinematic, and one political. To me, the film is not only a comedy, but also a piece in a larger political game. As a comedy, it makes me laugh. As a jester at the court of international relations, it makes me worry.

If you’ve managed insulate yourself from all the media attention The Interview‘s been getting and have no idea what it’s about, have no fear: the plot’s pretty simple. James Franco plays Dave Skylark, the clueless host of a trashy TV program who, thanks to his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen), manages to score an interview with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un (Randall Park). However, before Skylark and Rapoport set off, they’re honeypotted by the CIA into assassinating Kim. The film follows the two into North Korea, where they bed down in Kim’s palace and begin bumbling their way around in classic buddy comedy fashion.

I’ll freely admit that I found The Interview highly entertaining. At certain segments I found myself laughing out loud (which I don’t do very much), and there was never a languorous moment. The punches of humor just kept coming, and when they were on break, gunfire and explosions stepped into the ring to keep the show rolling. As expected, Franco and Rogen have awesome chemistry together, and there’s even a Lord of the Rings Sam-Frodo undercurrent that brings some thoughtful levity to their bromance.While there’s raunchiness and gore, it’s still presented within the stylistic limits of a buddy comedy. This gives The Interview a broader appeal, but also limits its depthdespite its obvious political subjects, I’d shy away from labeling the film as a full-fledged political comedy.

Political comedies, in my semi-tautological opinion, contain political humor. Political humor, in turn, often comes in the form of satire. The Interview has some satire, but it is nowhere near as prolific, dark, or biting as that in something like Team America: World Police (made by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone), which was the last major American comedy to lampoon North Korea. There’s no Hans Blix waving the UN’s impotent finger, and there’s certainly nothing that parallels Team America‘s fantastic monologue on dicks, pussies, and assholes. The Interview is far less irreverent, vulgar, and—most importantly—dark than Team America. This fact concerns me.

There are some who argue that North Korea isn’t funny and think that humorists shouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot Taepodong missile. As you might be able to guess from the way I ended that sentence, I don’t entirely agree. No, concentration camps and famine are usually no laughing matter. However, there’s also a little something in this world called black comedy. Nuclear war and presidential assassinations are usually not laughing matters either, but yet we have Doctor Strangelove and The President’s Last Bang (a South Korean film about the assassination of strongman Park Chung-hee).  Team America, I believe, falls within the realm of black comedy. The Interview, however, does not, and this ends up having broader implications.

Black comedy is an appropriate medium for normally taboo topics because, in a way, it’s supposed to be self-contained. Those who decide to have a dead baby joke contest know full well what they’re getting into, and in fact enjoy the contest precisely because they know that dead babies hold a sanctified place in regular life. In black comedy, something is funny because it’s serious, rather than funny because it’s not serious.

The sheer darkness of black comedy is also a partial insurance policy against sensationalism; if something is both pre-tagged as taboo and already horribly lurid, it either loses its shock value or is too offensive to be widely distributed. Black comedy uses walls of laughter to strengthen quarantines around awful subjects, and is in fact very helpful for reminding us just how screwed up something can be.

Because The Interview is not a black comedy, it does not have those protective walls. Out in the wilderness, it must tread carefully to avoid sensationalizing North Korea. Unfortunately, treading carefully is something the film does not do successfully.

There are many indications that the makers of The Interview did a significant amount of research into the country. The film incorporates many anecdotes familiar to North Korea watchers (e.x. the figure of 200,000 concentration camp inmates), and there are subtle details like the slightly modified name and logo of its Air Koryo stand-in (look closely at the airstairs when Rogen and Franco step off the plane in Pyongyang) that pop up every now and then. Seth Rogen stated that the filmmakers consulted with journalists from Vice who had visited North Korea which, while commendable, is also quite concerning. As someone who’s been to North Korea, I can tell you that while it’s certainly a mind-boggling place, it’s nowhere near as scandalous or scary as Vice’s documentaries make it out to be. Even if their government runs concentration camps and plants informers amongst the populace, North Koreans aren’t just all Orwellian actors; they’re people toopeople with hangovers, girlfriends, and favorite beers. Both Vice’s pieces and The Interview seem to forget that fact.

What’s even more frustrating is that the film needs to be purposefully sensational in order to garner revenue and cater to its buddy comedy needs. Take for example its opening scene, which depicts a young girl signing an ode against America beneath Pyongyang’s Workers’ Party Monument, flanked by colorful propaganda balloons (in all my time watching news clips of DPRK rallies, I’ve never seen balloons). After she finishes, a missile launches into the air behind her, its smoke blocking out the pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel in the background (in reality, the hotel is on the opposite side of the Taedong River). People watching that scene come away with one thought: “wow, those North Koreans are all batshit crazy.”

This highlights The Interview‘s main problem. The truth is, North Koreans are not all batshit crazy, at least no more than the average American; they’re just radically different in ideology and culture, and the vast majority of them are regular people trying to raise their kids or cook rice for their next meal. However, talking about all that is not going to sell tickets, so The Interview makes a conscious choice to stick with a tried-and-true North Korean craziness narrative. By doing this, the movie reinforces our already heavily sensationalized perceptions of that nation. It keeps us mindlessly circlejerking to an image of Kim Jong Un as either a Eric Cartman-esque fatass or “literally Hitler”, and prevents us from realizing that the 24 million other people in North Korea also matter.

Whether we end up negotiating with or shooting at North Korea, this impression is utterly unhelpful; we get nowhere if policymakers, soldiers, or voters think they’re dealing with something that’s not serious. North Korea made such a fuss about The Interview precisely because they realize they’re not being taken seriously, that they matter so little in America that citizens will pay money to laugh at them in theaters. While that’s a positive sign for American power, gloating too long in someone else’s humiliation will make us seem even more like the arrogant, hypocritical imperialists that the girl at the beginning of The Interview rails against. Meaningful change in North Korea requires a nuanced understanding of the country’s complexities, and The Interview pulls viewers away from that level of cognizance.

As the most popular and widely marketed piece of media about North Korea in recent memory, The Interview has an unparalleled ability to shape Western perceptions about the already sensationalized state. Due to North Korea’s significance on the political stage, this creates a certain kind of social obligation, one that the film also has to weigh against entertaining viewers and turning a profit. Thinking about this intricate balance makes me question whether it was a smart idea to make The Interview at all. I doubt there’s a good way to balance all of those different factors, and I’d say the film tried but utterly failed at finding one. Rogen and Franco chose to go with mass entertainment over meaning, and on that front they succeeded spectacularly.

I would’ve loved to see the The Interview as a black comedy, but I don’t think I represent the average consumer that Sony was looking to extract revenue from. A film powerful enough to provoke cyberattacks and elicit presidential statements has a special responsibility to its sensitive subject, and it’s a pity that this one wasn’t able to uphold that duty. If it had succeeded, even at the cost of viewership, it would’ve been a film for the ages à la Doctor Strangelove.

I’m still laughing at The Interview, but it’s an ambivalent laughter. Just like one of North Korea’s Taepodong missiles, it rises up in an awesome cloud of smoke but falls far short of making history. Sleep-deprived writers may use it as joke fodder in the future, but its most lasting impact will probably be in pissing countries off before the news cycle’s end.

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