26 December 2014

‘The Interview’ is not ‘The Great Dictator’
… but is it worth watching?

Patrick Comerford

Last night I watched the most talked about and most controversial movie of this season, The Interview. Today I read that The Interview is top of YouTube’s “Popular Right Now chart” after being released online on Christmas Eve through four digital channels, Google Play, SeeTheInterview.com, Xbox Video, and YouTube Movies.

From its opening in the US in small and independent cinemas across the US, The Interview may have taken in $1 million on Christmas Day alone, according to both Variety and Deadline. Even then, the digital earnings for the movie were almost certainly hurt by widespread piracy.

The action-comedy directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen begins with “what-if” question: What if tomorrow North Korea provide it has nuclear missiles that can destroy the US from in an attack across the Pacific?

It goes on to tell the story of a bumbling television show presenter Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his geeky producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen), who run the low-market celebrity talk show Skylark Tonight.

When they learn the North Korean dictator is a surprise fan of the show, they land the interview they hope is going to gain them a reputation as credible journalists. But they are recruited by the CIA to turn their visit to Pyongyang into a mission to assassinate Kim Jong-un (Randall Park).

Rapoport travels to rural China to arrange the promised interview and to receive instructions from North Korean officials.

CIA Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) devises a plan to assassinate Kim by using a transdermal strip to expose Kim to ricin with a deadly handshake. When Dave and Aaron arrive in North Korea, a military officer discovers the strip in a pack of gum and chews it. Agent Lacey sends two more strips in an aerial drop and instructs Aaron to retrieve them.

Kim and Dave spend the day together bonding over their mean fathers, their secret love of Katy Perry, and partying their faces off with drink, cannabis and naked women. They become good friends, and Kim presents Dave with a small dog.

At a state dinner, however, the officer who has been exposed to ricin has a seizure, and in his dying pains he inadvertently shoots and kills a fellow officer. Dave feels guilty and discards a ricin strip the next day. He then thwarts Aaron’s attempt to poison Kim himself. At another dinner, Kim’s true, destructive and deceitful character comes out and Dave is terrified, and also finds the grocery shop he extolled earlier is in truth a façade.

Meanwhile, Aaron and a North Korean spook, Sook (Diana Bang), find they are sexually attracted to each other. In the midst of their tryst, she confesses she despises Kim and apologises for her role in the regime’s propaganda.

During the televised interview, Dave digresses from the agreed questions and raises increasingly sensitive topics. He cites Kim's need for his father’s approval and sings Katy Perry’s song ‘Firework.’ Kim cries and soils himself, debunking the propaganda line that he is above human bodily functions. No-one in North Korea is ever going to accept a flatulent Katy Perry fan seriously as the Dear Leader.

You might expect the move to end with Kim in prison, but instead it turns to a gratuitous yet unbelievable sequence of violence. A fight breaks out between outraged members of the broadcast team and the military. Kim shoots Dave in the chest in a fit of anger, but Dave survives, thanks to a bulletproof vest. He, Aaron and Sook escape in a tank, with Kim pursuing them in a helicopter. Kim is killed in a disturbing scene that is presented in slow motion as his face is distorted by a tank shell exploding and melting into fire and eventually ripping him apart.

Sook guides Dave and Aaron to a tunnel where they escape to South Korea, while she stays behind to lead the coup d’état that results in democratic elections.

The movie includes cameo appearances by Eminem, Rob Lowe, Bill Maher, Nicki Minaj, Emma Stone, Zac Efron, Guy Fieri and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Despite all the debates leading up to the release of The Interview, I found the movie is not so much a shrewd political satire as a coarse and vulgar move that often goes over the top. The best performances are not by James Franco and Seth Rogen but by Randall Park and Diana Bang.

This movie is like an updated episode of the 1960s spy comedy series, Get Smart, but like most of the episodes of Get Smart or The Man from Uncle, the plot is threadbare. It is laced with too many puerile jokes and lapses into racist stereotyping. After all the controversy this film has created, I found myself on the verge of being underwhelmed.

I have a limited tolerance for anal penetration jokes and infantile preoccupation with body parts. But if you have seen shocking comedies in the past, then there is not much left to be shocked by in this movie.

And yet The Interview raises questions about whether the assassination of one leader would bring about regime change and end the North Korean nuclear threat. The problems in North Korea are deeper than one person. Apart from North Korea’s nuclear capacity, military threats and cyber-bullying. These problems include famine, food distribution and food supply, human rights, with many people in prison camps.

This is unapologetic in advocating assassination as a legitimate political weapon. It explicitly endorses killing a political figure, without any irony. But it also proffers severe criticism of a regime that no-one would want to defend.

On the other hand, Kim gets in a few lines about how the US embargo has dramatically worsened the famine in North Korea, and in criticism of US torture of suspects and detainees, although he never actually names Guantanamo. And there are a few lines about the continuing prevalence of anti-Semitism … although even then I wondered whether this was a cheap shot aimed at making me draw subliminal comparisons with The Great Dictator.

Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn between the controversy created by The Interview and the controversy generated by Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses and other politically controversial movies and books. But while The Satanic Verses may have, arguably, been a contender for being a work of literature, The Interview might have died a quick death without this controversy.

Yet The Interview is a welcome satire about the way the US media manipulates people than it is a comment on North Korean politics. This is a story of how political debates have been reduced to entertainment debates in the US, and The Interview describes much of what is wrong with the way US corporate media and politics affect the world.

Some of the best jokes are about how US television reports on domestic and international politics. This is a parody that pokes fun not only at one of the world’s most dangerous dictators, but also at US television. As Dave says, the first rule of American journalism is to give the people what they want.

I found myself asking last night whether the same movie be made about, for example, Saudi Arabia? I can imagine no US movie-maker would ever dare to make a film about a fictional attempt to murder the King of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis are a key ally of the US in the Middle East, and crucial to the stability of oil supplies and therefore to the global economy. Yet human rights are virtually non-existent in Saudi Arabia, there is no religious or political freedom, and, Saudi Arabia plays an integral role in the expansion of Islamic extremism, assisting the financial operations of IS in Iraq and Syria and providing its ideological underpinning. It was Saudi Arabia too that provided the political and ideological training for most of the 9/11 bombers.

North Korea’s attempt to remove or censor this film has had the unintended consequence of giving even greater attention to its problems. Freedom of expression includes criticism of politicians in your own society, but also politicians in other societies.

This movie is worth watching if only to say No to cruel dictatorships. It is not going to stand the test of time in the same way as Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator. Who today remembers Death of a Princess, the British 1980 drama-documentary about a young Saudi princess and her lover who had been publicly executed? Yet its depiction of life in Saudi Arabia led many governments to oppose its broadcast, under threat of damaging trade ramifications.

I have stepped across the border from South Korea at Panmunjom and stepped briefly into North Korea in 1997 in one of the huts kept open for the talks that never seem to get anywhere. If we are going to deal with cruel dictators and regimes, then assassination is not the answer, but satire certainly helps. We need more movies to expose great dictators and cruel regimes. They are not going to bring them down, but they may help us to ask why many regimes are propped up by the West or Russia, and why only a few are singled out as figures of hate and targets for parody.

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