The Christmas Day release of the Seth Rogen and James Franco action comedy “The Interview” has been scuttled in the face of apparent threats from North Korea for the movie’s depiction of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s assassination. Rather than munch popcorn through the latest installment of bizarre moves by an unstable international pariah, we should see the larger context within which such actions take place.
Hackers, purportedly acting on behalf of the North Korean government, leaked a huge amount of sensitive data from the film’s maker, Sony Pictures. It’s the kind of story Western media loves: North Korea once again assumes its typecast role as an eccentric tin-pot dictatorship, replete with outsize demands and broken English, a combination of Cold War relic and oriental despot.
American’s image of North Korea is largely constructed from these sensationalized stories, many of which are outright falsehoods. Remember the unicorn lair? Kim’s executed girlfriend? Or when national security journalists promoted a sloppy parody video as real North Korean propaganda? These stories are repeatedly debunked, but the corrections fail to go viral, as the original claims do, such as the one that Kim fed his uncle to dogs. The overall effect remains: North Korea is as ridiculous as it is dangerous, run by violent, irrational madmen.
Editors at even the most respected U.S. publications are prepared to run any poorly sourced or poorly translated story about the country, and audiences are prepared to believe them. You don’t have to be an Internet Maoist to sense that Western media is rife with what’s essentially anti–North Korea propaganda.
This disinformation has made North Korea and its leadership the butt of jokes for years, most notably from Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “Team America: World Police,” a send-up of George W. Bush–era imperial hubris featuring a cast of puppets. “Team America” presented openly racist caricatures as part of a satire of the United States’ childish view of war and diplomacy. It savaged the American penchant for imagining geopolitics as a brainless action movie as much as it did Kim Jong Il. The film’s target, ultimately, was the dangerous ignorance produced by mainstream media coverage, with many Americans simply shrugging at the news of U.S. invasions as simply this week’s episode.
After all, as innumerable Hollywood creations have told us, sometimes the good guys have to do bad things to get the job done. Rogen, a co-director and star of “The Interview,” apparently subscribes to this line of argument: He publicly supported Israel during its most recent merciless assault on the Gaza Strip.
His new movie, however, doesn’t appear to work on the same level as “Team America.” Rather, it is yet another film starring, as Jordan Hoffman put it in The Guardian, “bumbling man-children,” in which the humor involves rear ends and what can go into and come out of them — precisely the kind of films Sony employees are sick of making. So disgruntled are Sony’s staff, in fact, that a number of rumors have circulated claiming that its workers themselves were behind the hack.
“The Interview” builds its butt jokes on a platform of criminal activity. It tells of a plot by the Central Intelligence Agency to recruit two journalists, played by Rogen and Franco, as spies — a widely used agency practice that journalist groups have repeatedly condemned as endangering the lives of reporters. The two are tasked with assassinating North Korea’s head of state, which, while it may have once been illegal and even thought immoral, has long been a part of the CIA toolkit. The depiction of their mission’s ultimate success was so grisly that Sony’s CEO demanded that it be toned down.
With this setting, “The Interview” effectively naturalizes such dangerous and illegal acts, making Americans more amenable to them. This is by no means an exaggeration. Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s favorite television show, “24,” helped normalize torture by presenting outlandish scenarios of ticking time bombs. Soon even the enablers of torture envisioned their job as part of the show’s plot. Sony has contributed to this whitewash: “Zero Dark Thirty” perpetuated the CIA’s lie that torture produced actionable intelligence. Hollywood helps lay the groundwork for excusing the atrocities of the future. And bumbling man-children may be an even more effective vehicle for this than Jack Bauer’s steely resolve. After all, we like to think of ourselves as saviors of the world, but only reluctantly so, without guile or malice.
Hollywood and the American state are intertwined. While the U.S. film industry is heavily subsidized by all manner of incentives and tax breaks, it uses international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization, to thwart other nations’ attempts to protect their domestic cinema production and to enforce intellectual property laws favorable to U.S. companies. The result is a worldwide saturation of American-made media as Hollywood productions capture audiences and profits abroad at the expense of other countries’ film industries. In 2013, U.S. films took 75 percent of the global box office. Cinema is a weapon, so Hollywood shouldn’t be surprised to find itself embroiled in international conflict.
It goes without saying that recent threats of terrorism against theaters are reprehensible. But Sony didn’t cancel the film’s release out of concern for its audience. After the Department of Homeland Security dismissed the threats, theater chains balked at screening the film, forcing the conglomerate’s hand. Christmas Day is too important to cinemas to risk a dip in attendance.
In the end, for all the complaining by the film’s cast, “The Interview” might actually benefit from the attention. Critics were lukewarm about the film, but now that it’s a matter of democracy and free speech, we can consider it our patriotic duty to suffer through 112 minutes of lazy poop jokes and lazier apologies for U.S. militarism.