Yes, bravo to Hollywood’s comedy about North Korea.
After the epic furor of the past six months, including the early pre-release denunciation of the movie and threats voiced against it in June by North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, the hack attack in November on Sony Pictures Entertainment, the hackers’ threats in December against American movie-goers, the cancellation by Sony last week of the movie’s scheduled Christmas Day release, the scolding of Sony by President Obama in between his embrace of Cuba and his departure last Friday for a Hawaii vacation — OK, take a deep breath — Sony finally released the movie both in theaters and for rental online. So, on Christmas eve, we watched.
And yes, The Interview is crude, vulgar, silly, tedious at times and crammed with what we might politely call locker-room gags, presumably meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator of modern pop culture. If you’re in the market for a brilliant comic and cultured takedown of tyranny, era no object, then you’d do much better to spend an evening with Carole Lombard and Jack Benny, in the 1942 classic about a Polish acting troupe versus the Nazis, To Be or Not to Be.
But as a graphic jab at North Korea’s totalitarian system, including its third-generation current tyrant, Kim Jong Un, The Interview — despite its lavish dose of rubbish — is a standout achievement. It is a burlesque laced with moments of truth that anyone can understand.
OK — spoilers ahead. There is a scene at the end, in which North Korea’s Kim regime has fallen, and Kim’s former chief of security, a comely woman named Sook (played by Diana Bang), who turns on her totalitarian boss and helps the clueless heroes free her country, is skyping freely and happily from North Korea to the U.S. For that scene alone, the movie is worth it. This depiction of a North Korea free of the long nightmare of the totalitarian Kim dynasty is a vision that seems to endlessly elude legions of extremely serious international leaders and diplomats, who are forever talking about engaging, reforming or containing North Korea’s regime — which is structured at its core to resist such efforts and carry on brutalizing its people and menacing the free world. The Interview may be short on sophistication, but it cuts to the basic truth: that regime has to go.
The plot of The Interview, in brief: Two TV- tabloid journalists, sad sack producer Aaron Rappaport (played by Seth Rogen) and ditzy celebrity talk show host Dave Skylark (played by James Franco) land an exclusive interview with Kim Jong Un in North Korea. They are asked by the CIA to assassinate him, and after various misadventures in Pyongyang they fumble the mission. Instead, with the help of Sook, they do something even more damaging to the Pyongyang regime: in an interview televised not only internationally, but also to a North Korean audience, they expose Kim as an insecure and murderous fraud — nothing like North Korea’s official propaganda and totalitarian myth of a godlike figure presiding over a happy and thriving nation. They end up fleeing for their lives, along with Sook, in a tank given to Kim’s grandfather, founding tyrant Kim Il Sung, by Stalin (in my country, it’s pronounced “Stallone,” Skylark tells Kim Jong Un, earlier in the movie). Kim pursues them, in a helicopter gunship. To save their own lives, they fire at him with the tank, blowing him up (and so save the world from the nuclear weapons, which Kim, in his rage, is about to launch).
There’s been a lot of debate about whether it’s appropriate to make a comedy, or any kind of movie, about the assassination of a sitting head of state. Whether Kim deserves to be classified as a legitimate ruler (he is not actually the titular head of the state; he is the monolithic supreme leader of the Korean Workers’ Party, which enjoys pervasive monopoly control over the state, utterly crushing all rivals), and whether the movie is actually about an assassination, are the more relevant questions here. In this plotline, the downfall of Kim, and his regime, comes not with the final kaboom, but with the interview in which he is exposed before a collective TV audience in his own country as a brutal fraud.
And amid the vulgarities, there is a scene that deserves to be excerpted and shown on big screens everywhere…The setup comes as Skylark and his producer arrive in Pyongyang, and are shown a grocery store full of tasty-looking food, with a chubby little boy nearby, waving to them. Despite his producer’s warnings, Skylark accepts all this as the way things really are, and has a great time befriending Kim Jong Un.
Later in the movie, having caught a glimpse of Kim as the cruel and ruthless tyrant he really is, Skylark goes for a late night walk as snow drifts down on Pyongyang (in the movie, North Korea’s minders have unrealistically melted away during this scene, but never mind). He goes back to the grocery store, and discovers the entire thing is a Potemkin display. The shelves of food are a fake backdrop. The luscious looking fruit stacked by the window is made of plaster. Horrified and furious, he calls out “fake, fake, fake!” and shouts into the night “liar, you liar!”
That leads on to the moment in which, before the TV cameras, while interviewing Kim Jong Un, Skylark elides from the official questions scripted for him by North Korea, into one of the real questions. He looks Kim Jong Un in the eye, and asks, “Why don’t you feed your people?”
It’s a question asked by a comic actor, in a Hollywood spoof, addressing another actor playing Kim Jong Un. No matter. This is a scene that one way or another, the world needs to see. Bravo.